Gregg fires shot at highway bill

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), unhappy with an effort to add $11 billion to the $284 billion highway bill, threw a temporary roadblock in the way of the Senate’s schedule yesterday.

Gregg objected to a routine motion by his own party to allow committees to meet later than usual in the morning. Although committees may meet for two hours after the Senate is in session, they cannot meet beyond that time without unanimous consent, a rule senators regularly waive. It is rare that any member objects, although Democrats recently used the tactic to protest actions by the majority, forcing the Senate to go into a recess so that committees could meet.
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Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.)

Among the panels scheduled to meet yesterday morning were Energy and Natural Resources; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; and Intelligence, while Armed Services was scheduled to hold a markup. The Budget Committee, which Gregg chairs, and Appropriations are exempted from the two-hour rule.

Gregg was miffed at an amendment to add $11 billion to the highway bill, which President Bush has threatened to veto if it exceeds the $284 billion amount approved by the House. The latest Senate version, which incorporated the funding amendment as part of a substitute amendment, would total $295 billion.

The Senate Finance Committee developed the funding amendment and included a series of revenue raising offsets to pay for it, but the added amount could provoke Bush’s first veto.

“Are we going to pass budgets that mean something, or are we going to pass budgets for show?” he asked a group of reporters after making his objection on the floor.

Despite Gregg’s complaint, most senators favor the increase in funding. “I am one that thinks we should be spending more rather than less on highways,” said Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah).

But Bennett acknowledged Gregg had raised a “legitimate issue” as to “whether the offsets that pay for this are legitimate. Let’s try to resolve that rather than just say, ‘Cut it off at 284 [billion dollars],” he said.

Sen. Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusSteady American leadership is key to success with China and Korea Orrin Hatch, ‘a tough old bird,’ got a lot done in the Senate Canada crossing fine line between fair and unfair trade MORE (D-Mont.), the ranking member of Finance, also defended his committee’s amendment. Asked about Gregg’s tactic, he told The Hill, “It’s an indication of weakness.” He added, “We’ve got to get to the bill. If he has an amendment or wants to make a point of order, it’s certainly his prerogative.”

Baucus also defended the specific offsets. “Nothing’s made up. It’s all by the book,” he said. He noted that the Joint Tax Committee scored the amendment as revenue-neutral. “We all go by Joint Tax and CBO [the Congressional Budget Office] here,” he said. “Both parties do. All senators do.”

According to one Senate aide, Gregg also was upset that GOP leaders didn’t provide notice of their intention Monday night to seek unanimous consent to incorporate the amendment into a new substitute amendment to the bill. That tactic denied Gregg the chance to object and force senators to vote on the move to exceed the president’s highway number. Gregg also believes some of the offsets can’t actually be scored as raising revenue.

“They’ve got the votes to win,” the aide said. “They didn’t need to do this. But to try to take the stink and cover it up with the rest of this bill, and to do it without notice, is not fair.”

The Finance Committee amendment would, among other things, accelerate a provision intended to crack down on leasing-tax-shelter abuse, deny the deductibility of punitive damages and include provisions dealing with expatriation of U.S. citizens. The offsets effectively allowed the Senate to increase the amount of highway funding without increasing the actual cost of the bill.

As for how Bush would respond, Baucus said, “He’s never vetoed a bill. I doubt seriously it’ll be this one.”

By late yesterday afternoon, however, Gregg had lifted his objection and allowed committees once again to meet.