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Emergency Bill Funds Mississippi Rail-Line Work

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Senate is taking up an emergency spending bill. The Bush administration asked for money to cover costs of the war and Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. Senators responded by adding some spending of their own. President Bush has threatened to veto this bill if it cost more than $94.5 billion. Right now, the Senate version exceeds $106 billion. NPR's Peter Overby reports on what a difference a few billion dollars make.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

The bill is a must pass; voting against it can too easily be framed as voting against the troops. That's why it has taken on so much baggage. Yesterday, Senators voted to shift $2 billion from the Pentagon to border security. It gave lawmakers a way to go on record opposing illegal immigration while the actual immigration bill is stalled.

But if there is one provision that captures the spirit of this emergency legislation, it may be the earmark for a railroad along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Sen. TRENT LOTT (Republican, Mississippi): This is the track. It's built in marshes and on sand. It cannot stand. It will not stand.

OVERBY: Mississippi Senator Trent Lott made the case on the Senate floor last night that after Hurricane Katrina, the railroad should be moved far inland and the federal government should pay for it. The railroad belongs to CSX Transportation, but you might call it the Barbour-Cochran-Lott line, as in Mississippi governor and former Republican National Chairman Haley Barbour and the state's two Senators, Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran and Lott.

Sen. LOTT: Senator Cochran and I, and our governor and our officials in Mississippi, have tried to be restrained and responsible and conservative in the request we've made.

OVERBY: The CSX freight line they want to move runs right along Mississippi's highway of casinos, US 90. After Katrina, CSX spent $250 million putting it back in service. The plan calls for that rail line to be turned into a new six-lane road. The total tab for the new rail line and the highway would be $700 million.

Mr. DAVID KEATING (Executive Director, Club for Growth): We're saying, look, you're spending way too much money. It's a shameless act here to lard this bill up with extraneous items. You've got to cut it back.

OVERBY: David Keating is director of the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group. He joins several other prominent conservatives this week, urging the Senate to get back to fiscal basics. But Steve Ellis, an analyst at Taxpayers for Common Sense, says the provision wasn't snuck in the way earmarks often are.

Mr. STEVE ELLIS (Analyst, Taxpayers for Common Sense): I think that when you look at the horsepower of the Mississippi delegation, between Haley Barbour, former Majority Leader Trent Lott, and Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, they can afford to go in the front door.

OVERBY: Among the arguments marshaled by the Missippians, and inland railroad would be safer in hurricanes; the new highway would make evacuations easier and it would spur development. And Cochran points out that with lots of national defense facilities along the coast, it's important to let workers get to their jobs.

Leading the charge against the Mississippi railroad provision, in fact, against all of the earmarks, is Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn. He said last night that the Mississippi plan doesn't even fit the Senate's own definition of an emergency.

Sen. TOM COBURN (Republican, Oklahoma): This is $700 million. It is a great project for Mississippi, I agree. It's probably something that should be done. The question is, is it an emergency and should everybody else in this country pay for it?

OVERBY: Last night, the Senate came up with two answers. Answer one, Majority Leader Bill Frist said he has the votes to sustain a presidential veto and show that, quote, "we're not kidding about fiscal restraint." And answer two, the Senate voted to keep the $700 million railroad provision in the bill.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.