Oberstar blasts White House, accelerates highway bill

Lawmakers pushed back aggressively against the Obama administration Thursday as they moved forward with the long-anticipated highway bill.
Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, and Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the panel’s ranking member, said that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was wrong to call for an 18-month extension of the existing law Wednesday and that any delay in overhauling the nation’s transportation system could lead to more job losses.

“We don’t have time for 18 months. That puts Damocles’s sword of uncertainty over the future of transportation. It’s unacceptable,” Oberstar said. “We are open to discussion with the White House but they have to come across the divide to talk to us.”
The legislation, which would not only reauthorize funds for highways but also railroads and public transit, is expected to cost as much as $450 billion over six years. Oberstar’s plan would streamline the Transportation Department significantly — consolidating or terminating more than 75 programs — and has won praise from several trade associations, such as the American Society of Civil Engineers and Transportation for America.
The bill’s looming price tag has worried Washington on whether it would be politically feasible to pass this year since rising deficits and big expenditures, such as the Wall Street bailout and $787 billion stimulus package, leave scarce federal funds to work with. In addition, LaHood’s call to wait could hurt the chances of passing the bill, which Oberstar and other lawmakers believe is critical to do this year.
Calling it “the most critical jobs bill before Congress in the next year,” Mica said he agreed with the chairman on pushing the bill forward.
“We are going to do everything we can to move this bill forward, despite what the administration said yesterday,” Mica said.
The two lawmakers held aloft a shovel at the press conference announcing the bill to symbolize the multitudes of construction projects the legislation would launch. That led Oberstar to let out a quip at the White House’s expense.
“There are folks at the economics gang at the White House who have never had a shovel in their hands or a callus on their fingers,” Oberstar said.
Mica then finished off the Minnesota Democrat’s sentence with “who came forward yesterday but we are going to show them how to get people actually working. We are going to do it together.”
Oberstar said his committee will mark up the bill June 24. He also said he wanted the bill on the House floor for a vote by the end of July.