Congress sends $58 billion transportation bill to Clinton

Friday, October 6th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Congress sent President Clinton a compromise $58 billion transportation bill Friday that would establish a national drunken driving standard and is loaded with election-season goodies for lawmakers: Highway projects for every state.

The House approved the massive measure by 344-50, and minutes later the Senate gave it final legislative approval by 78-10. Clinton's signature is expected.

The bill would pressure states to adopt a 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content as the standard for determining drunken driving by threatening to gradually cut federal highway aid for states that do not do so, by up to 8 percent, beginning in 2004.

Currently, 18 states and the District of Columbia have 0.08 laws, and in Massachusetts evidence of a level of 0.08 is considered evidence but not proof of drunkenness. Thirty-one states define drunken driving as 0.10 percent blood alcohol content.

Advocates say the lower levels will save hundreds of lives. Opponents, which included the restaurant and alcohol industries, said the measure would penalize social drinkers while leaving the real problem unaddressed: repeat offenders who drink heavily.

Fueling the bill's passage was its sheer size. Its $58 billion was $7.3 billion more than last year's level, $3.3 billion more than Clinton requested, and nearly $3 billion higher than earlier versions passed by the House and Senate.

Included were billions of dollars for highway, mass transit and other projects for lawmakers' home districts, including dozens of projects that had not appeared in the earlier House or Senate bills.

These included $100 million for a bridge crossing the Mississippi River at Greenville, Miss., home state of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.; and $28 million to connect Interstate 90 and state road 79 in South Dakota, home to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

On Thursday, the Senate voted 83-13 to send Clinton an $18.8 billion Interior Department bill for fiscal 2001 establishing the massive land conservation program and making a $1.2 billion down payment on it. With the House having already approved the measure, it now goes to Clinton for his promised signature.

Friday's votes meant that only five of the 13 spending measures for the fiscal year that began Sunday have cleared Congress. And of those, Clinton has threatened to veto one that finances energy and water projects because of a dispute over water levels on the Missouri River.

The Senate voted 95-1 Thursday to keep federal agencies open through Oct. 14 while budget talks continue, another bill Clinton will sign. The first temporary extension expires Saturday morning.

The new program for purchasing fragile lands, maintaining parks, preserving wildlife and other conservation initiatives marks a major victory for Clinton, who has made expanding public parklands a priority.

It was far smaller than a $45 billion, 15-year program that passed the House but was bogged down by Westerners in the Senate. Even so, the measure would more than double last year's federal conservation spending.

Amid burgeoning federal surpluses, the overall Interior bill was $3.9 billion bigger than last year's measure, $2.4 billion more than Clinton had requested and more than $3 billion larger than earlier House and Senate versions.

Barely a month before Election Day, it was loaded with hometown projects for lawmakers from every state. That ranged from $288,000 for wolf recovery efforts in Idaho to $487,000 to restore a carriage barn at the home of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which is now a national historic site in Cambridge, Mass.

``This is our business ... to see to it that the lands and historic sites and facilities of the United States of America are properly maintained,'' said Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash.

But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a frequent critic of such spending, did not see it that way and released a 20-page list of ``objectionable'' projects.

``The spigot is on,'' he complained.

The Clinton administration succeeded in removing language from the Interior bill that would have exempted New Hampshire's White Mountains from planned Forest Service protections. Also deleted was a section that would have blocked consideration of removing Snake River dams in Washington state to help struggling salmon populations.

But Western commercial interests won their own victories. These included permission for some ranchers using federal lands to renew grazing permits without environmental reviews, and money to enable loggers to remove debris from some national forests.

The bill also contained $105 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, $7 million more than last year and the agency's first significant increase since the GOP took control of Congress six years ago.