LaHood tangles with GOP over stimulus

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican House member, showed this week he’s ready to take on his old colleagues when challenged.

LaHood got into a heated argument over the $787 economic stimulus package Friday with Rep. Scott GarrettErnest (Scott) Scott GarrettManufacturers ramp up pressure on Senate to fill Ex-Im Bank board Five things lawmakers want attached to the trillion funding bill Bipartisan group of House lawmakers urge action on Export-Import Bank nominees MORE (N.J.) while offering testimony to the House Budget Committee.

The debate was related to attempts by some Republican governors to refuse stimulus money, and ended up with LaHood offering praise to New Jersey’s Democratic governor, Jon Corzine, who faces an uphill reelection battle this year.

LaHood is one of two GOP Cabinet secretaries in the Obama administration, and was known as a centrist during his 14 years in Congress.

Obama picked him as Transportation secretary even though he did not sit on the committee with jurisdiction over the agency. Since taking the post, LaHood has been a go-between for the president to House Republicans. He lobbied GOP members to vote for the $787 stimulus package, and he told The New York Times that he felt disappointment when none of them voted for it.

The exchange with Garrett occurred after LaHood pushed back against suggestions that he pressured Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) to keep the stimulus money her state received.

Garrett noted that LaHood sent a letter to Brewer asking her if she preferred to forfeit stimulus money. LaHood didn't send a similar letter to other governors.

"Why just pick one state?" Garrett asked. "Trying to make political hay?"

LaHood, piqued by Garrett's suggestion, said that his letter was a response to Sen. Jon Kyl's (R-Ariz.) suggestion on television two weeks ago that the state return stimulus money.

"Sen. Kyl is not in charge of the money, congressman," LaHood told Garrett. "The governor is. I wanted to be sure that the governor was not in the same line of thinking."

When Garrett wondered whether his state would receive a similar letter, LaHood backed Corzine, the embattled New Jersey governor, noting that he had secured millions in stimulus funding from Congress. Corzine this year is facing a tough re-election race against Republican Chris Christie.

"Your governor has been a real leader in this, by the way," LaHood said during an exchange in which the two former GOP conference members talked over one another.

LaHood bristled when Garrett asked repeatedly if the letter to Brewer was written at the encouragement of others in the administration.

"I don't need any encouragement from anybody to write letters to governors," he said.

Other Republican governors, including Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, said they would send back some of the stimulus money to Washington to avoid spending increases they didn't want to pay for in the future.

LaHood started his testimony before the House Budget Committee highlighting the $22 billion in stimulus money his department has made available to states for transportation projects.  LaHood said the funding has helped start 3,200 projects and has created or saved more than 700 jobs in Pennsylvania and hundreds more in other states.

LaHood said the stimulus will mark a "turning point" in the economy and has been money well spent.

"No earmarks, no boondoggles, no sweetheart deals," he said.

LaHood also pushed back Friday against suggestions by Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.) that Obama's advisers don't understand the importance of transportation.

Oberstar, the House Transportation and Infrastructure chairman, told The Hill last week that the Obama administration relied too much on "theoretical economists" instead of people with real-world experience with transit projects. The administration has ignored Oberstar's call for a new $500 billion surface transportation bill, pushing instead for a short-term extension of the current legislation for road and rail projects.

LaHood responded Friday to Oberstar's comments by saying the president understands the importance of transportation and infrastructure spending. Obama pushed for $8 billion for high-speed rail that was included in the stimulus during its final negotiations.

"This idea that people at the White House don't get it is not accurate," LaHood said. "The president gets it, and we're carrying out his priorities."