Bush dismisses gas tax hike for bridge repairs
Bush disagrees with the way Congress prioritizes highway spending
8 percent of last highway bill was devoted to projects singled out by lawmakers
Remainder goes to states in form of grants to be spent as they decide
Bush confident that Pakistani President Musharraf will go after terrorists there
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WASHINGTON (AP) -- A week after a deadly bridge collapse in Minneapolis, President Bush on Thursday dismissed raising the federal gasoline tax to repair bridges at least until Congress changes how it spends highway money.
Before raising taxes, Bush said, Congress should "examine how they set their priorities."
"The way it seems to have worked is that each member on that (Transportation) committee gets to set his or her own priorities first," Bush said. "That's not the right way to prioritize the people's money. Before we raise taxes, which could affect economic growth, I would strongly urge the Congress to examine how they set priorities."
About $24 billion, or 8 percent of the last $286 billion highway bill, was devoted to highway and bridge projects singled out by lawmakers. The balance is distributed through grants to states, which decide how it will be spent. Federal money accounts for about 45 percent of all infrastructure spending.
The Democratic chairman of the House Transportation Committee proposed a 5-cent increase in the 18.3 cents-a-gallon federal gasoline tax to establish a new trust fund for repairing or replacing structurally deficient highway bridges.
More than 70,000 of the nation's bridges are rated structurally deficient, including the bridge that collapsed over the Mississippi River last Wednesday. The American Society of Civil Engineers says repairing them all would require spending at least $9.4 billion a year for 20 years. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minnesota, says his tax-increase proposal would raise about $25 billion over three years.
On terrorism, Bush said he is confident in the ability of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to crack down on militants at the Afghan border and cooperate with the U.S.
He said he expected Musharraf to take "swift action if there is actionable intelligence inside his country." Bush refused to address whether the U.S. troops would go into Pakistan without permission from leaders there.
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"We spend a lot of time with the leadership in Pakistan talking about what we will do with actionable intelligence," Bush said. "Am I confident they (terrorists) will be brought to justice? My answer is, `Yes I am.' "
Musharraf, a key ally in Washington's fight against terrorism, is under growing U.S. pressure. But the Pakistani leader is under considerable pressure at home too.
At home, Bush ruled out any bailout of homeowners hit with foreclosures in the form of direct assistance. But he said "enormous empathy" is in order for such people and indicated he was open to some federal help for people to refinance and keep their homes.
"The word bailout -- I'm not exactly sure what you mean. If you mean direct grants to homeowners, the answer would be no," the president said.
The delinquency rate on home loans was almost 5 percent in the first three months of the year.
On the controversy of former NFL player Pat Tillman's friendly fire death while serving in the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Bush said "the best way to honor that commitment of his is to find the truth."
The president described Iran as "a destabilizing influence in the Middle East."
Noting that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was in Iran Thursday, Bush said he hoped his message would be the same as the United States' -- that Tehran should halt the export of sophisticated explosive devices into Iraq or "there will be consequences."
He did not say what those consequences would be.
Bush got angry over a question about whether embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should be held accountable. Members of Congress from both parties have called Gonzales' credibility and leadership of the Justice Department into question after congressional testimony on a number of issues.
"Why would I hold somebody accountable who's done nothing wrong?" the president said, then turning the issue back on the Democratic-led Congress.
"Matter of fact, I would hope Congress would become more prone to deliver pieces of legislation that matter rather than being the investigative body," he added.
The August news conference has become a tradition for Bush, a move designed to clear the decks and have the last word before heading away from Washington for vacation and travel.
Bush opened by announcing that he had signed legislation to promote math and science skills and develop the technology needed to compete in the global economy. The measure calls for spending $33.6 billion over the next three years for science, technology, engineering and mathematics research and education programs across four federal agencies.
The midmorning session was Bush's first full news conference since July 12 when he inaugurated the newly refurbished White House briefing room. Since then, he has had brief question-and-answer sessions with Britain's new prime minister, Gordon Brown, and Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai.
With Congress already out of town, Bush was leaving Washington right after the question-and-answer session for a three-night stay at his father's oceanfront compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he is attending the wedding of a friend. On Saturday, Bush also will meet over lunch at his parents' home with France's new president, Nicolas Sarkozy. The French leader is vacationing at an estate on Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, about 50 miles away.
The president is to return to the White House on Sunday and then head out the next day to spend most of the rest of the month at his Texas ranch and traveling.
Among Bush's scheduled outings from his ranch is a meeting with the leaders of Mexico and Canada August 20 and 21 in Ottawa