WASHINGTON -- As part of an effort to spur additional job creation, the Obama administration will push Congress to keep surface transportation spending at current levels rather than subject it to cuts, according to sources familiar with the matter.
A White House official tells The Huffington Post that the president will hold an event Wednesday alongside Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce Chief Operating Officer David Chavern calling on Congress to pass a "clean extension" of surface transportation funding.
"The president will discuss the importance of moving forward with this extension to protect nearly a million American jobs and highlight the opportunity we have to work in a bipartisan way to further invest in rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure to strengthen our economy and create new jobs across the country," the aide said.
It remains to be determined whether the president will also include the issue in his highly publicized speech on job creation, set for next week. Administration officials were mum on the matter when asked about it by The Huffington Post, choosing instead to speak in broad strokes about what the president will discuss.
But Democrats on and off the Hill say that the current spending levels must be maintained if the party is to be viewed as serious about jobs. Surface transportation spending is set to run out on September 30; if it is allowed to lapse, thousands of federal construction jobs would simply be lost.
Discussions about specific legislation that would extend the funding has caused friction between Republicans and Democrats. A bill has not yet been officially introduced. But Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, has outlined a two-year extension at the cost of $109 billion, which would keep spending at its current levels. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair John Mica (R-Fla.), meanwhile, has pushed a six-year extension with a 34 percent reduction in the amount spent.
A top Republican aide explained that the longer-term extension, which is more common for surface transportation authorizations, would "give states and transit agencies the predictability it needs to plan for long term projects." The aide added that given diminished revenues coming into the Highway Trust Fund, it was necessary to reduce the amount being spent on surface transportation. "You can't continue to write these checks that we can't cash," said the aide.
For Obama, however, the immediate standard to meet is job creation. And according to Boxer's office, the numerical difference in dollars spent between her plan and Mica's is the equivalent of 630,000 jobs. It was, perhaps, little surprise that at a time when it's extremely difficult to get information about the president's job speech, CBS reported that the White House wanted the $109 billion two-year package as part of Obama's plan to "spend big on the nation's roads and bridges."
Conservatives attacked the item as further evidence that the president couldn't tame his spending urges, though Democrats note that the $109 billion wouldn't be a spending increase, just a continuation of current spending levels. Indeed, when the last surface transportation bill expired in September 2009 (there have been seven temporary extensions since then) House Democrats proposed a $500 billion measure to takes its place -- the type of price tag that make lawmakers blush given the current push toward austerity.
Still, it's not entirely clear whether Obama will make a formal pitch for Boxer's proposal when he delivers his jobs address. While her outline does have a prominent Republican supporter -- Environment and Public Works ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) -- the window for passage is incredibly tight. With all spending set to expire in one month, both chambers in Congress will rarely be in session simultaneously during September.
Most transportation spending advocates predict that Congress will resolve the issue in its usual fashion: by simply extending the current law until some future moment. That would keep current projects funded for now. But it would also mean that lawmakers will have punted on specific legislative changes that could spur even more job creation, such as allocating $1 billion (as opposed to $122 million) for the TIFIA program, which helps communities use federal credit assistance -- direct loans, loan guarantees, and lines of credit -- to leverage their transportation projects.
"We are going to need to do an extension because I don't think anybody thinks we will be able to get a two-year bill or a six-year bill done in the next thirty days," said the Republican aide.