No commitment from President Obama on $500 billion transportation bill

President Barack Obama has yet to back a $500 billion transportation bill that Democrats plan to move early this year.

During a closed-door session with the entire House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), the chief sponsor of the transportation reauthorization measure, pressed Obama to back his bill funding road, rail and transit projects.

ADVERTISEMENT
Obama, according to Oberstar and other lawmakers, didn’t make any specific commitments on infrastructure and transportation spending, but he listed infrastructure projects among his priorities.

“He’s on track,” Oberstar said of the president’s response.

Obama is under pressure to bring the country out of the worst recession in decades — unemployment is at 10.2 percent, a 26-year high. Democrats say the answer is to spend money to jump-start the economy with jobs. Republicans have criticized that approach, citing last year’s $787 billion stimulus, and say that Obama should consider cutting taxes instead.

House Democrats passed a job-creation bill in December and say they intend to move on Oberstar’s six-year transportation reauthorization next.

“The jobs bill that we passed was an important step and everybody recognized that, but there’s going to continue to be [a focus on jobs], both starting with Mr. Oberstar’s bill, but also focusing on innovation,” caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) told reporters during the House Democrats’ jobs summit.

The White House has held back from offering its full commitment, instead focusing on the general goal of job creation.

“The top priority is to continue to work hard on getting this economy back on track and creating jobs,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Tuesday.

Despite a push by Oberstar and the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the transportation measure stalled last year. Lawmakers were unable to find a way to pay for the projects in the new version. Past surface reauthorization bills have been funded through the federal highway trust fund, which relies on revenue from gas taxes. But that revenue is expected to slacken in future years as Americans cut back on driving.

Because of the unsettled funding debate, the White House and the Senate had been lukewarm toward the idea of a new, multiyear transportation reauthorization measure, pushing instead for an 18-month extension of the expiring version.

House and Senate negotiators have since agreed to several temporary extensions, the last of which will end Feb. 28.

House Democrats have been pushing for more infrastructure spending to help boost the job market. They included $48.3 billion in infrastructure spending, most of which will go to highway projects, in the $154 billion jobs bill they passed last month.

House Republicans have criticized the Democratic stimulus spending as ineffective, pointing to an analysis by The Associated Press and economists that found the stimulus infrastructure projects had failed to cut local jobless rates. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) pointed to the analysis in an attack on vulnerable House Democrats. NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said that Democrats have backed “bloated spending programs that will only stimulate more government and higher debt.”

The House jobs bill, in addition to its standalone increase in infrastructure spending, allows for another extension of the expiring transportation reauthorization bill to the end of September. Pelosi’s office has left open the possibility that a more permanent transportation bill could be taken up soon after the Senate passes its jobs measure.

“Once the Senate acts on its jobs bill, we will work out differences, but we expect infrastructure to be a critical component of the final jobs bill,” said Nadeam Elshami, a Pelosi spokesman.