Washington — Congress this week is proving that even a lame duck can hustle when it chooses, as it speeds toward passage of the 5-cent-a-gallon hike in gasoline taxes. The revenues would raise $5.5 billion during four years for highway and mass-transit improvements.
Opponents, ranging from truckers, who will pay the biggest share, to conservationists, who fear a new round of highway construction, have been brushed aside as Capitol Hill grasps for a quick solution to the nation's joblessness.
Only little more than a week into its lame-duck session, the House passed the measure. Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker Jr. predicted that his chamber will also pass the measure, which comes up for a vote Thursday. At a breakfast meeting, the Tennessee Republican cited the bill, which he concedes he originally opposed, as a major accomplishment for the three-week session.
As it now looks, the tax is almost unstoppable. Motorists can expect to see the nickel tax reflected at the gas pump next April, at an estimated annual cost of $30 per person.
However, it is far from clear that this tax, which supporters say will put at least 300,000 people to work on highway repair and construction projects, will have any effect on the 10.8 percent unemployment rate.
Alice M. Rivlin, director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), told a Senate hearing earlier this month that such a program ''can have only limited, short-term effects in reducing the serious unemployment caused by the current unemployment.''
''A substantial reduction in unemployment will come only from broad-based economic growth,'' she said, warning that higher taxes on motor fuels would ''reduce the purchasing power of households.''
In the long run, said the CBO director, who is herself a lame duck soon to step down from her post, the highway-repair bill will benefit the economy by repairing worn roads and bridges. ''But in the short term, we should expect little increase in employment.''
Despite the Rivlin warnings, members of Congress continue to refer to the legislation as a ''jobs bill.''
House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. calls the effect of the bill ''psychological.'' The Massachusetts Democrat says that ''if (the public) can see 350,000 people go to work, that would generate some confidence.''
But he concedes that the highway bill is ''basically to take care of the infrastructure of America'' by building and repairing highways.
House Democrats are proposing to go even further, by fashioning a package of additional jobs measures with a price tag of $5 billion. They plan to include those proposals in the stopgap spending resolution that Congress must pass next week to keep the government in operation.
Those job ''additives,'' expected to be sprinkled throughout the House version of the funding bill, will almost certainly produce a tough fight before the lame-duck session ends. Senator Baker has repeatedly said he won't consider any jobs proposal except the gas tax until next year, and the Democratic measures would invite a presidential veto as well.
Baker defends the highway bill now before the Senate as a ''pretty efficient use of money and time.
''It does create approximately 300,000 jobs,'' he says, pointing to the fact that the jobs will be created quickly since the highway programs already exist.
But virtually no one on Capitol Hill claims that the $5.5 billion highway bill will make much of a dent in unemployment.
Senate Finance Committee chairman Bob Dole said at breakfast earlier this week, ''The danger is (that we will) pass the bill and say, 'Well, we've solved that problem.' ''
''We're really holding out a lot of hope for people,'' said the Republican from Kansas, citing the 12 million now out of work. ''Jobs bills get the headlines, but I'm not sure if they get any jobs.''
If there is one point of agreement on Capitol Hill, it is that the ultimate solution will come in a general recovery of the economy. Leaders in Congress have no magic wand to wave, but at least with the highway bill they will be able to go home for Christmas having taken some action.
Before final approval later this week, the highway/gas-tax bill still must face resistance from truckers, who estimate it will cost them nearly $2 billion a year in new taxes for fuel, tires, oil, and excise charges for new trucks.
It also faces the opposition of groups such as Friends of the Earth, a group that is charging that the House bill will favor the building of expensive new highways in the urban East over fixing up worn-out roads.
The Senate will also have to deal with a controversial House amendment by Rep. Douglas Applegate (D) of Ohio that requires the government to ''buy American'' products.