Resolution of the issue removed a major impediment to a compromise on the giant spending bill.
The decision not to seek a strict .08 blood alcohol standard was a victory for House negotiators, who won acceptance of their plan to set up a fund to reward states that voluntarily enact the tougher standards.
The Senate, in its version of the six-year highway and mass transit spending bill, moved to cut up to 10 percent of a state's highway construction money if it failed to adopt the .08 standard now in force in 16 states.
The White House also pressed hard for the national standard, and Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said the administration will "continue to fight for the .08 blood alcohol content because we know that it saves lives."
"I'm disappointed we were not able to keep it as a sanctions program," said Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Chafee, R-R.I., chief negotiator for the Senate and a proponent of the national standard.
The national standard provision was strongly supported by the Clinton administration and safety groups. Incentives, said Diane Riibe of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is "not strong enough medicine to fight the epidemic of drunk driving."
Some groups representing liquor and restaurant industries lobbied hard against the .08 standard, saying it would end up targeting responsible social drinkers rather than the chronic, heavy drinkers who cause most of the drunken driving casualties.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said that while he supported the .08 standard, he was opposed to punishing states that felt otherwise, "and I think they came up with an alternative that is going to be very positive in getting states to, in fact, move to .08."
The House and Senate have been negotiating for several weeks to iron out differences in the highway bill, one of the biggest and most important measures they will vote on this year.
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