President Obama signed a $105 billion transportation bill on Friday, bringing to an end a three-year fight over road and transit spending.
The bill signing capped a day that began with an unemployment report showing the U.S. economy had added only 80,000 jobs in June, leaving the national unemployment rate unchanged at 8.2 percent.
“First of all, this bill will keep thousands of construction workers on the job rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure," Obama said in a quick speech delivered less than an hour after he landed at Andrews Air Force base in suburban Washington.
“Second, this bill will keep interest rates on federal student loans from doubling this year, which would have hit nearly seven and a half million students with an average of $1,000 more on their loan payments,” he continued. “These steps are going to make a real difference in the lives of millions of Americans.”
Republicans had sharply criticized the president for the unemployment numbers on Friday.
“Millions and millions of families are struggling and suffering because the president's policies have not worked for them,” Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said at a press conference in New Hampshire, where he is on vacation with his family.
“This kick in the gut has got to end,” Romney added.
Obama argued at the transportation bill signing on Friday that lawmakers in Congress should send him more bills like the measure he was signing into law.
“My hope is this bipartisan spirit spills over into the next phase,” Obama said. “That we can start putting more construction workers back to work – not just those that were already on existing projects that were threatened to be laid off – but also getting some new projects done.
“My message to Congress is the same thing I’ve been saying for months now — let’s keep going,” Obama continued. “Let’s keep finding ways to work together to grow the economy and help put more folks back to work. There’s no excuse for inaction where there’s so many Americans trying to get back on their feet.”
The bill Obama signed provides road and transit funding for the next two years. It also extends a 3.4 percent interest rate on student loans for one year and a flood insurance program for five.
Supporters of the transportation portion of the bill touted it as a bipartisan compromise.
“As a conferee and Chairman of the Committee responsible for making our transportation system safer, I’m pleased we approved a bill that’s bipartisan and makes smart investments in our national infrastructure and safety system,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said in a statement.
“Finding consensus is never easy, but this was a major priority and making the country’s roads, bridges, and highways safer and more efficient is good for all of us,” Rockefeller continued. “I know West Virginia can make good use of the over $420 million coming to the state next year to rebuild our highways.”
Republican lawmakers also applauded the signing of the transportation bill, even as they continued to hammer Obama over both unemployment and his role in the fractious negotiations between the chambers of Congress that led to Friday’s ceremony.
“The bill becoming law today is the result of strong bipartisan and bicameral work by a number of my House and Senate colleagues,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said in a statement released after he attended Obama’s signing of the transportation bill.
“Fortunately through their work and efforts, thousands of projects will not be closed down next week, and hundreds of thousands of workers will not receive pink slips,” Mica said. “Unfortunately the president and his administration are today trying to mask their lack of leadership with a backdrop of construction workers and students.”
Mica (R-Fla.) took the stage with Obama at the signing ceremony, along with Rockefeller and Rep. Nick Rahall (W-Va.), the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation panel, according to the White House.
Transportation advocates were more measured, pointing out that while Obama was signing the first transportation bill approved by Congress since 2005, the new legislation only provides funding through 2014.
“Rebuilding public trust will be critical in the years ahead as policymakers outline their vision for an improved transportation system, which likely will require the public to pay more for the roads and bridges that they use,” AAA Auto Club President Robert Darbelnet said in a statement.
“Long-term federal investment in highways and public transportation is needed to help make America stronger, and this new law is a positive step in the right direction for safety, mobility and economic growth,” Darbelnet also said.
Meanwhile, groups that lost out on provisions in the compromise on the transportation bill Obama signed Friday were already gearing up for the next round of negotiations between the House and Senate on road and transit spending.
“While the worst riders were dropped, the result still was a mess of a bill that reduces public oversight of highway projects and cuts funding for transportation choices that would have reduced traffic while lessening our dependence on oil,” Natural Resources Defense Council federal transportation policy director Deron Lovaas said in a statement.
“We will work toward a better result in two years, when Congress again must take up this important issue,” Lovaas said of the transportation bill, which includes Republican provisions to loosen environmental regulations on transportation construction.
— This story was updated at 6:45 p.m.