The Senate Wednesday gave strong approval to a measure, endorsed by President Clinton, that would set a national standard for drunk driving and punish states that don't abide by it with a loss of highway funds.
Voting 62-32, the senators amended a major highway spending bill to call on all states to set 0.08 percent as the blood-alcohol level at which a driver is declared legally drunk. States that fail to do so by October 2001 face losing 5 percent of their share of federal highway spending, with the penalty going up to 10 percent at a later date."I hope that the happy hour is over for drunk drivers," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., chief sponsor of the amendment along with Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio. "Drunk driving is a crime, like assault, like shooting at someone, like murder, and it should be treated with the same severity."
Opponents of the measure expressed concern that the punishments were too harsh and said the federal government shouldn't be forcing standards on states.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said his own father had been killed by a drunken driver and states should be encouraged to make their standards tougher. But he questioned whether lives would be saved by taking highway money away from states. "It's a typical approach," he said. "Do it our way or I will punish you."
The issue is also likely to come up in the House when it takes up the highway bill, probably later this month.
Clinton strongly endorsed the legislation at a White House gathering Tuesday, during which he cited the case of a 9-year-old Maryland girl who was killed by a drunken driver as she waited for a school bus.
"Lowering the limit will make responsible Americans take even greater care when they drink alcohol in any amounts if they intend to drive," the president said. He told members of Congress that "if we win this battle and you want to come back for a lower limit, I'll be glad to stand here with you."
Clinton announced he was asking Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater to conduct a study on enforcing the 0.08 percent limit on federal lands.
Currently, 15 states, including Utah, enforce 0.08 percent blood-alcohol levels, while the other 35 states set the drunk driving standard at a higher 0.10 percent.