Obama hits bump in road spending

Infrastructure ideas dismissed

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President Obama is not finding many allies in his latest call for bipartisan cooperation on new infrastructure spending and tax breaks, and even Democrats say nothing will get done in the two months before congressional elections.

“He’s just throwing it on the wall, hoping it will stick,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee and generally a fan of road-building, who said Mr. Obama muffed this one. “The strongest supporter of infrastructure on the Republican side is me, and he’s certainly not getting my vote.”

Mr. Obama this week is laying out a set of proposals he maintains were crafted to win bipartisan support as he tries to regain the initiative on jobs and the economy. Among the ideas are making the popular research and development tax credit permanent, speeding up business tax write-offs and spending billions of dollars more on roads and railways.

All of those have attracted Republicans and Democrats in the past, but with the federal deficit topping $1 trillion for a second straight year, both sides said they expect these proposals to get chopped up in the same partisan buzz saw that has sliced up so many other parts of the president’s agenda.

The White House on Tuesday acknowledged the pull of politics, but dismissed charges that Mr. Obama’s proposals are meant for short-term political gain.

“We’re in the political season, we get that,” said press secretary Robert Gibbs. “This is not simply something that the president is proposing to get us somehow through the next seven weeks of how we get our economy from where it is to where we want it to be.”

Still, the proposals aren’t charging up Democrats right now, either.

“We have to see the details,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the head of House Democrats’ campaign committee, told CNN Tuesday. “We’re looking forward to working with the president on his proposals, but obviously we have to see some of the details. But the thrust of this is in the right direction.”

The Maryland Democrat said no action is likely before midterm elections and that the party’s main priority for this month is to approve a small-business lending fund that Mr. Obama requested earlier this year.

Part of the administration’s struggle stems from last year’s $814 billion stimulus package, which has had a mixed track record. The administration claims it is sustaining millions of jobs, but the unemployment rate remains high, and even ticked up last month, just at the time when economists said the stimulus should be having its peak effect.

Although Mr. Obama is calling for more infrastructure spending, all of the initial stimulus funding made available has not been spent.

Of the $63.5 billion in stimulus money designated for infrastructure, nearly $13 billion hasn’t been obligated, and $43.5 billion has yet to be paid out, according to statistics compiled by Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“I don’t know what planet these people have been living on for the last 18 months,” said Rep. John L. Mica of Florida, the ranking Republican on the committee, who said money needs to be allocated a lot faster.

Democratic aides on Capitol Hill said the fate of the agenda rests with Senate Republicans - which does not bode well for prospects for a bill, but offers more fodder for the a midterm election message.

“Clearly, Republicans in the Senate have shown no interest in working with the administration to help create jobs or support small businesses,” said one senior House aide. “And you can count on House Republicans to do absolutely nothing. So the onus is on Senate Republicans to end their obstructionism and work on behalf of the middle class, but House Democrats are not holding their breath.”

One Republican, Sen. George V. Voinovich, did leave open the possibility of working with Mr. Obama on a road-building bill, though only if the president comes up with a way to pay for it. Mr. Voinovich said that likely means an increase in the gas tax.

“The president’s credibility is on the line here,” the Ohio Republican said. “The fact is, we should be paying for the transportation bill by increasing the gas tax, which has not risen since 1993.”

Mr. Obama has not said exactly how the proposals will be funded, though Mr. Gibbs said the dollar figure for the infrastructure spending and tax changes is $180 billion. He said the administration is prepared for deficit spending to try to get people back to work.

Mr. Inhofe, a major backer of infrastructure spending, said more money was available during last year’s stimulus fight, but Democrats put it into other priorities.

If Mr. Obama had been serious in wanting to get a bill this time, Mr. Inhofe said, he would have reached out to key Republicans before making his announcement.

“He did not think it through. He’s just grasping at anything,” Mr. Inhofe said.

He also challenged the president’s proposal to rewrite the way highway money is disbursed. The money currently is allocated both by congressional earmarks and by a formula Congress approves, but Mr. Obama wants to take those decisions away from Congress, arguing that it will take politics out of the allocation process.

A spokesman for the chairman of the Senate’s public works committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, didn’t return a message asking about her stance. In a lukewarm statement, Rep. James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the president appears to share the committee’s goals of investing in infrastructure, though Mr. Oberstar was silent about the details of the president’s plan.

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