Critical of earmarks

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- With the nation facing a colossal price tag to fix or replace aging bridges such as the 40-year-old span that collapsed in Minnesota last week, President Bush said yesterday that Congress should change the way it spends money before it considers raising gasoline taxes.

Bush chastised lawmakers for what he said was the way they pick transportation projects - letting key committee members "set his or her own priority first," before turning to other projects.


"That's not the right way to prioritize the people's money," Bush told a White House news conference. "So before we raise taxes which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities."

Bush did not flatly rule out an increase in the federal fuel tax, set 14 years ago at 18.4 cents a gallon, but he has resisted such efforts in the past.


Some in Congress have called for an increase of up to 5 cents a gallon, to pay for bridges and other infrastructure, and allowing the tax to rise with the cost of living in the future.

Avoiding turmoil

In a wide-ranging question-and-answer session with reporters, the president also said he envisioned a limited government role in the housing and mortgage problems that have roiled financial markets, and reinforced his commitment to what he called an "ideological struggle" in Iraq.

The news conference marked the beginning of what will effectively be a monthlong vacation from Washington for Bush. He will be at his family's estate in Kennebunkport, Maine, through Sunday and has extended stays scheduled at his Texas ranch for much of the rest of August.

He is to attend a meeting of North American leaders in Ottawa, Canada, on Aug. 20-21 and a summit with leaders of Asian and Pacific Rim nations in Sydney, Australia, in early September.

But the problems of his presidency, particularly the war in Iraq, are likely to follow him no matter where he goes.

Bush said he was prepared to warn Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki about placing too much trust in Iran. Al-Maliki received a warm welcome yesterday during a visit to Tehran, which the Bush administration blames for exporting bombs and weapons that kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq and for continuing a nuclear program in the face of international pressure.

"If the signal is that Iran is constructive, I will have to have a heart-to-heart with my friend the [Iraqi] prime minister because I do not believe they are," Bush said.


Political progress in Iraq remains extremely slow, even as the U.S. military is making some security gains, but Bush urged patience and said he was standing by his conclusion that establishing a democratic regime in Iraq was "necessary for our short-term and long-term security."

Bush noted that provinces in Iraq are receiving money from Baghdad, a sign that the country is achieving some goals in the absence of a law on oil revenue distribution. U.S. officials have long pointed to the need for such a law as a sign of progress.

"If one were to look hard, they could find indications that - more than indications, facts - that show the government is learning how to function," he said.

But a report released yesterday by the National Security Network, a not-for-profit group that advocates for a new policy in Iraq, concluded that while money is being distributed, it isn't improving the lives of ordinary Iraqis.

"Mismanagement and corruption combined with security operations dominate much of the Iraqi budget," it said. "Reconstruction has taken a back seat."

Billions for bridges


A week after the collapse of the Interstate 35 bridge connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul, some lawmakers - including Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican - have called for an increase in the federal gasoline tax, with revenues dedicated to bridge repair.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that $9.4 billion yearly for 20 years would be needed to fix the nation's aging bridges.

Bush suggested that bridge problems could be addressed if Congress eliminated set-asides for favored projects, or "earmarks."

Rep. James L. Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who heads the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in a statement that a bridge-repair proposal he made this week does that and that a gas-tax increase was only one funding stream being considered.