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Not surprisingly, one of Oberstar's strongest allies could be Alaska Republican Don Young, the former Transportation Committee chairman who earmarked $1 billion worth of transportation spending for Alaska in 2005.
"May the sky fall on me," Young said last week in announcing his support for a possible tax hike for roads and bridges.
But Bush took direct aim at the committee:
"From my perspective, the way it seems to have worked is that each member on that committee gets to set his or her own priority first, and then whatever is left over is spent through a funding formula," Bush said.
Oberstar argues that his proposal would use the new money -- about $25 billion over three years -- only for the 6,175 structurally deficient bridges in the national highway system. It would specifically prohibit congressional or administration earmarks.
"The president is sticking his head in the sand and hoping things will just work out," Oberstar said. "We need to move quickly to address these problems. They aren't going to fix themselves. The money isn't going to fall from the sky like manna from heaven."
'Don't make me vote on this'
With the president and many other Republicans opposed, some observers say it is unlikely that Democrats will want to press a close, party-line vote to increase the federal fuel tax, which has stood at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993.
"If the president isn't interested, it has almost zero chance of passing," said David Keating, executive director of the small-government group Club for Growth.
One reason, Keating said, is that Democrats don't want to hand an election-year issue to Republicans. "The idea of Congress passing higher gas prices on motorists -- I don't think anyone's going to be interested," he said. "And any Democrat in a vulnerable district is going to think 'Please, guys, don't make me vote on this.' "
One example is freshman Democrat Tim Walz, whose rural Minnesota constituents could be hit hard by higher gas prices. Walz, considered a top legislative target for Republicans next year, has taken no position on Oberstar's proposal so far.
But Walz is hardly alone in reserving judgment in the early going. Rep. Jim Ramstad, a Minnesota Republican who, like Walz, positions himself as a moderate, said he is "reviewing the proposal."
Kevin Diaz 202-408-2753 firstname.lastname@example.org