Finance Committee leaders plan a floor amendment to increase transportation bill funding above $284 billion. There is speculation that the boost could be $10 billion to $15 billion. But the White House has issued a veto threat if the final measure’s total exceeds $284 billion.

Design firms, contractors and states, slogging through a 19-month delay, so far, in passing a new transportation bill, see the next milestone up ahead. The Senate could approve a multi-year measure in the week of May 9, when it returns from a one-week break. "It may take all week but I think they will," says Jack Basso, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ director of management and business development.

All parties are awaiting an expected floor amendment from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and the panel’s top Democrat, Max Baucus of Montana, to add funding to what now is a $284-billion bill.

Grassley and Baucus are not saying how big a hike they will propose, but there is speculation it could be $10 billion to $15 billion. The lawmakers insist they will provide offsetting revenue so the net cost of the change will be zero. Grassley has said the main source for that offset will be tightening up on fuel tax fraud.

Industry groups, seeking as big a bill as possible, are rooting for the Grassley-Baucus plan. They see lots of support in the Senate to push the bill past $284 billion. The amendment "is crucial to getting a bill off the Senate floor," says David Bauer, vice president for government relations for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. Observers note that the added money will help meet the desires of "donor" states, who want to increase their return on fuel taxes paid from the current 90.5%.

If the amendment and the bill pass, there is another roadblock ahead. The White House remains adamant that $283.9 billion is all that it will accept. "Should the obligation or net authorization levels that would result from the final bill exceed [$283.9 billion], the President’s senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill," the Office of Management and Budget said on April 26.

Since the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century expired Sept. 30, 2003, six short-term extensions have kept road and transit programs going. Stephen E. Sandherr, the Associated General Contractors’ CEO, says the long delay has "created a lot of uncertainty in the states and uncertainty for contractors." He says some states have reduced highway contract awards or borrowed funds to make up for federal shortfalls.

The latest stop-gap extension lapses May 31. Congress leaves May 20 for a Memorial Day recess and odds are long that it will wrap up a new, multi-year bill by then. "It’s possible, but an awful lot is yet to be done," says AASHTO’s Basso. That may well force extension seven.

Energy: Bush Wants Refineries on Closed Military Bases
To boost domestic oil production, President Bush has proposed constructing petroleum refineries on U.S. military bases that have been closed. If approved by Congress, the new facilities would be the first refineries built here in 30 years. Bush says regulators would ease permit rules for that construction.

In an April 27 speech to a small- business conference, Bush also revived a 2002 plan to spend $1.1 billion over seven years to construct nuclear powerplants. He said the Energy Dept. would work to change existing laws and reduce regulatory uncertainty over licensing, a problem that helped lead to construction halts in the 1970s. Bush promised federal risk insurance to protect those building the first four new plants against delays "beyond their control."

Security: Chemical Plant Bill Debated
Legislation to tighten chemical plant security is gaining life in the Senate but had a House setback. "It appears that legislation is needed to better secure our nation’s chemical facilities and to better prepare in case of a successful terrorist attack," said Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Susan Collins (R-Maine). Witnesses testifying April 27 before Collins’ panel warned of potential dangers in that sector. "If you look at the list of possible...targets, the chemical industry absolutely screams at you as essentially a weapon of mass destruction," said Stephen Flynn, Council of Foreign Relations senior fellow. The House Homeland Security Committee cleared an authorization bill April 27, but defeated an amendment with chemical security provisions from Edward Markey (D-Mass.).

Corps: ‘Hold’ Ended Against Woodley For Civil Works Post
Alabama’s Senators said April 27 that they had dropped objections to John Paul Woodley Jr., President Bush’s nominee to be assistant Army secretary for civil works. Republicans Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions stalled a floor vote on Woodley because they didn’t like Corps of Engineers actions related to an Alabama water dispute with Georgia. Woodley "agreed not to take any action that will adversely affect any state," Sessions said.

Compiled by Tom Ichniowski and Sherie Winston