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clock Aug 2, 2007 11:57 pm US/Central

House Panel Approves $250M Fund Request For Bridge

Special Section: I-35W Bridge Collapse

Slideshow: I-35W Bridge Collapse

(AP) Washington, D.C. The House Transportation Committee approved legislation Thursday that would direct $250 million to Minnesota to help it replace a bridge that collapsed Wednesday evening, as supporters in both chambers hustled to try to pass the legislation before Congress leaves for its scheduled monthlong summer break Friday.

The bill, ushered through by committee chairman Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., would waive the $100 million federal limit per state for emergency relief funds. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday night that the House will pass the bill this week.

Minnesota's two senators, Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Amy Klobuchar, introduced identical legislation Thursday.

Initially, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said it was too soon, one day after the collapse, to commit to providing $250 million. But after meeting with Klobuchar he later issued a statement promising to work for the funding.

"The Senate leadership stands together with Senator Amy Klobuchar and the entire Minnesota delegation, and will help Minneapolis get everything it needs in the aftermath of yesterday's tragedy," Reid said.

Coleman, Klobuchar and Rep. Keith Ellison flew to Minneapolis along with Transportation Secretary Mary Peters early Thursday morning to inspect the damage.

"A bridge in America just shouldn't fall down," Klobuchar said at a news conference with Coleman.

Both senators said they were encouraged by the emergency response to the collapse.

"Clearly, we have learned some lessons, at a time when people have such cynicism about government, and the ability of government to respond," Coleman said.

Later, they gave back-to-back speeches on the Senate floor about the deadly collapse. Klobuchar said the emergency response "is going to be a model as we go forward in handling national emergencies."

When the bridge went down, Coleman told his colleagues, "part of Minnesota's soul went with it."

Ironically, a Senate committee approved legislation Tuesday -- a day before the bridge collapse-- that Coleman had introduced with three other senators to create a National Commission on Infrastructure. Klobuchar signed on as a co-sponsor of that bill, aimed at tackling the deterioration of the nation's bridges and other public works. The bill was unanimously passed by the Senate Thursday night.

Ellison, a Democrat who represents Minneapolis, said he drove across the bridge countless times.

"It's pretty sobering to see that bridge absolutely destroyed," he said in a telephone interview.

Oberstar said that ultimately, more money would be needed than called for in the bill.

"I think it will cost substantially more than $250 million to rebuild that bridge -- not only the bridge but the approaches on either side of the bridge," he said. "But we have to start somewhere."

The bill was supported by Republicans on the House Transportation Committee, with Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., saying the nation had not spent enough money on transportation infrastructure.

"People think they're saving money by not investing in infrastructure, and the result is you have catastrophes like this," he said. "We've got another wake-up call. This is something that should spur us to action at the national level."

Oberstar said that he spoke with Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, who told him the Bush administration supports the legislation. But a Transportation Department official said that Peters did not specifically discuss the bill.

At a news conference later, Oberstar and Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the committee's subcommittee on highways and transit, criticized the Bush administration for what they said was inadequate spending on transportation funding.

"Unfortunately, we're saddled with an administration that shorted us on the last highway bill," DeFazio said, adding that more money is needed to deal with things like bridge deficiencies.

Oberstar noted that in 2003, the committee had proposed a six-year, $375 billion transportation bill, but had to settle for about $90 billion less because of opposition from the Bush administration. Oberstar was ranking Democrat on the panel at the time, and Alaska Republican Don Young was chairman.

"This administration failed to support robust investment in surface transportation and the funding to accompany it," Oberstar said.

Asked if he was saying that the bridge collapse was a direct result of underfunding by the administration, he responded, "No. But the needs are immense. And if we don't fund the program properly, then necessary bridge inspections can't be conducted."

He said that when the next transportation bill comes up in 2009, Congress won't settle for a "bargain basement" transportation bill.

White House spokesman Alex Conant responded: "This is the time to extend a helping hand, not a pointed finger. It's unconscionable that some in Congress are launching partisan attacks while victims are still being pulled from the Mississippi. Our focus continues to be on the ongoing rescue and recovery efforts."

Oberstar declined to say whether the state should have shut down the bridge after reports founds it "structurally deficient," saying he didn't want to second-guess state officials until he had more information.

(� 2007 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. )

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