Minneapolis bridge funds held hostage in Washington budget battle

Bush and Stanek
President Bush and Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek surveyed damage to the collapsed I-35W bridge in August. The president promised aid to help reconstruct the bridge but, months later, there's been little significant progress.

(AP) Just a day after President Bush vetoed their top domestic spending bill, congressional Democrats drew nearer to sending him one more, even though it faces an identical fate. By a 270-147 vote, the House passed a bill that provides $195 million to replace the collapsed Interstate 35W span in Minneapolis and an additional $1 billion above Bush's request to help states fix deteriorating bridges.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., voted against the bill containing the bridge money. The rest of the Minnesota delegation, except for Rep. Jim Oberstar, voted in favor of the measure. Oberstar is recovering from recent surgery and did not vote.

The measure provides $105.6 billion for transportation, housing and community development programs. The measure, which the Senate probably will act on this week, was $5.5 billion more than Bush's budget. It restored administration cuts to Amtrak, community development grants and housing programs.

The president has promised to veto the bill because it exceeds his budget requests. That was the same reason he cited Tuesday when he vetoed a health, education and job training bill that was almost $12 billion more than he wanted to spend. The House margin was eight votes short of the two-thirds that would be required to override a veto. House Democrats were expected to fail in a vote Thursday to override the rejected health and labor measure.

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Bush has taken a hard line with majority Democrats over spending, promising vetoes of at least nine of 12 of the annual spending bills that set agency budgets for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

He issued a new veto threat on the transportation and housing bill Wednesday. "Congress has failed to show a path to hold spending to reasonable and responsible levels," according to the White House. "This unwarranted spending puts a balanced budget in jeopardy and risks future tax increases."

With Congress ready to leave town on Friday for a two-week Thanksgiving recess, there has been faint progress on the budget logjam, except for enactment of the Pentagon's budget. It is looking increasingly likely that agreement on the annual spending bills - the core responsibility of Congress - will drag into the new year.

Democrats defended the latest spending bill, popular with lawmakers for the money for highways, mass transit, federal aid to airports, Amtrak, low-income housing and community and economic development grants.

The measure also contains $250 million for counseling to help homeowners threatened with foreclosure in the housing crisis. That includes $200 million for nonprofits and other groups that help homeowners with subprime mortgages avoid foreclosures and $50 million to counsel potential homebuyers about avoiding foreclosures.

Many subprime borrowers are unsophisticated and are often intimidated in their dealings with mortgage servicers. Nonprofit groups such as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, and NeighborWorks America give advice and often serve as intermediaries for borrowers requiring adjustments to the terms of their loan.

Republicans criticized the bill for its 2,000-plus pet projects, including money for bike paths, grants to local transit agencies, new road and bridge projects, community centers and parks.

The money-losing Amtrak passenger railroad, a target of the administration for excessive subsidies on long-distance routes and other management problems, would receive almost $1.5 billion, $550 million more than sought by the White House.

The measure would block the Transportation Department from going ahead with a pilot program giving Mexican trucks greater access to U.S. highways. Supporters of the plan, including the administration, say it would save American consumers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Labor and driver-owner groups have fought the measure since it was first proposed, saying the program will erode highway safety and eliminate U.S. jobs.