By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
COVINGTON - Federal funding to replace the worn Brent Spence Bridge has been caught up in a "family fight" among Republicans in Washington, the Senate's No. 2-ranking member said Thursday.
Mitch McConnell, a Louisville Republican and the Senate Whip, told a Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce gathering that "differences" between Republican House members, GOP senators and President Bush is holding up passage of the federal transportation spending bill.
"It's an intra-party Republican ... family fight" over how much money should be put in the bill and how long the bill should last, McConnell told a crowd of nearly 120 at Covington's Metropolitan Club.
McConnell and Ohio Republican Sen. George Voinovich have been appointed to the conference committee that will reconcile these differences in the various versions of the transportation spending bill:
House - $270 billion.
Senate - $318 billion.
Bush - $256 billion.
There are also disagreements over whether the bill should last for five years or six years, McConnell said.
"That's the first decision we are going to have to make: How much and for how long?" McConnell said. "We're going to have to work that out with the president ... before we get to the other issues that you all are concerned, such as the deterioration and condition of the Brent Spence Bridge.
"I think we will get a bill if we can reach an agreement on the amount and the time," he said. "Otherwise, we'll end up with a shorter-term extension that nobody wants."
Voinovich has said the conference committee hopes to have a final bill ready for Bush to sign by June 30.
"I'm going to do everything I can to help with this extremely important project," McConnell said. "It's going to be nice to have George Voinovich on the conference (committee) as well. I know that he cares a great deal about this project, and we're going to do the very best we can."
Chamber President Gary Toebben said he hopes the government allocates "at least $50 million" to get the project started.
"Take a look at a map of Ohio and Kentucky and see the communities and geography that's served by Interstate 71 and Interstate 75, and you'll find it is the entire geography of both states," Toebben said.
"I thought the senator's comments were very encouraging today," he said. "The fact that Sen. McConnell and Sen. Voinovich are on that (conference) committee is very significant. It's a big plus for us."
But McConnell was unable to commit or even suggest how much money might be spent on the $750 million bridge-replacement project.
"It's just too early, there's really nothing I can tell you about it," McConnell said in a brief interview after his speech. "We haven't even had the first meeting."
Elected officials and business leaders from Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati have pushed hard for the project's funding, even traveling to Washington to lobby the region's lawmakers.
Campbell County Judge-executive Steve Pendery, a Fort Thomas Republican involved in the lobbying effort, said the Brent Spence is a "central" piece of the region's transportation system.
"It's a commercial artery that is aorta-size," said Pendery, who attended McConnell's speech. "It's got to be taken care of."
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