WASHINGTON — The Bush administration said Thursday that structural deficiencies were found two years ago in the highway bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis and it was the state's responsibility to fix them. Congress began working on a $250 million package of federal assistance.

President Bush, who will travel to the scene of the disaster Saturday, said the federal government would help rebuild the bridge that spanned the Mississippi River in the city that will host next year's Republican National Convention.

"We in the federal government must respond, and respond robustly, to help the people there not only recover, but to make sure that lifeline of activity — that bridge — gets rebuilt as quickly as possible," Bush said after a Cabinet meeting.

Still stung by harsh criticism of the government's sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush talked with state and local officials in Minnesota, and sent officials to the scene.

The White House said an inspection two years ago found structural deficiencies in the

40-year-old highway bridge that buckled during evening rush hour Wednesday.

The Interstate 35W span rated 50 on a scale of 100 for structural stability and was classified as "structurally deficient," meaning there were features of the bridge that needed to be repaired or replaced.

"It doesn't mean that the bridge is unsafe," Transportation Secretary Mary Peters told The Associated Press after touring the site. "It could carry a rating of 50 for a number of years without getting substantially worse."

According to the Federal Highway Administration, of the approximately 600,000 bridges nationwide in 2006, there were 75,422 that carried a "structurally deficient" classification.

Peters said the bridge had been on a schedule for inspection every two years. She said she did not know what specific problems were uncovered during the last inspection.

Earlier, at the White House, press secretary Tony Snow said that while the inspection didn't indicate the bridge was at risk of failing, "if an inspection report identifies deficiencies, the state is responsible for taking corrective actions."

The House Transportation Committee quickly approved legislation that would direct $250 million to Minnesota to help it replace the bridge.

The bill, ushered through by committee Chairman Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., would waive the $100 million federal limit per state for emergency funds. Oberstar said he hoped the House would pass the bill later in the day.

But in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said it was too soon to approve emergency funding for a new bridge because it's unclear how much will be needed.

Congress is scheduled to depart Friday for a monthlong summer break.

"We can't come up with that in less that 24 hours," Reid said.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who chairs the panel that controls transportation spending, said she needs an on-the-ground assessment of the damage before Congress can determine how much to allocate.

"The Department of Transportation has enough flexibility within their current budget to be able to deal with immediate needs, and certainly we need to be able to have an accurate assessment of what the money is going to be used for," Murray said.

Murray said the Bush administration has not supported Democratic efforts to increase spending on critical infrastructure.

"The lack of the investment in the infrastructure in this country is truly frightening," Murray said. "What we get are budgets that are underfunded, and when we try to invest what we believe is a better number, we just get veto threats."

White House deputy press secretary Scott Stanzel said, "It's unfortunate and unconscionable that Democratic leaders in Congress are trying to use this horrific event as an opportunity to launch partisan attacks."

First lady Laura Bush will visit Minneapolis on Friday to console victims of the disaster. She will view the site from an overlook area and stop at an emergency operation command center to visit with volunteers and first responders. Afterward, she will stop by the Republican National Committee summer meeting being held in the city and make a speech at a youth conference at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.

While in Minneapolis with Federal Highway Administrator J. Richard Capka, Peters announced a $5 million grant to help pay for rerouting traffic around the disaster, clearing debris and making repairs. Peters said any requests for more money would be considered quickly.

Bush made morning phone calls to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak to offer his support and acknowledge the economic cost of losing a main transportation artery.

"I told them we would help with rescue efforts," Bush said. "But I also told them how much we are in prayer for those who suffered. And I thank our fellow, my fellow citizens for holding up those who are suffering."

The administration also has sent federal help from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the FBI, Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency, Snow said.

———

Associated Press writer Jennifer Kerr contributed to this story.

On the Net:

DOT inspector general's report: http://www.oig.dot.gov/item.jsp?id

1767

A county-by-county breakdown is available at:

http://wid.ap.org/inv/bridges/sd—bridges06.xls

and http://wid.ap.org/inv/bridges/sd—bridges06.zip