WASHINGTON -- Recent changes in rhetoric from Republicans on Capitol Hill have provided a sliver of hope about the prospects of getting an infrastructure bill through Congress.
Several freshmen House Republicans have either publicly stated or privately pushed for enhanced federal spending in their home districts. The most recent revelation came when Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.) told a town hall last week that the president's stimulus package -- which he had criticized on the road to election -- would have been better had it "taken a lot bigger chunk of that money and put it into infrastructure."
It was a relatively rare acknowledgment from a GOP member that targeted spending on, say, roads and bridge repair, has a positive economic impact. But it's exactly the type of message that some Republican freshmen have been sending privately.
Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.) petitioned the Department of Transportation, for instance, to spend $13 million for a port project in his home district. Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) asked the department for $4.365 million for airport runway repairs for his district. Rep. Steven Southerland (R-Fla.) wrote a letter to the department encouraging it to guarantee a loan for the company Boldini, S.A. to build offshore supply vessels at a shipyard in Panama City, Fla. Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) pressed the department to send funds for high-speed rail construction to New York after they had been rejected by Gov. Rick Scott of Florida.
All of these efforts to secure funds were revealed after The Huffington Post obtained the records of communications between freshmen members and the Office of the Secretary at the Department of Transportation through a Freedom of Information Act request. Several offices did not return requests for comment. Those that did -- Fincher's and Johnson's -- both stressed that investments in these specific infrastructure projects were not the same type of wasteful spending that they had wailed against for many months.
"There’s a difference between smart federal spending and the reckless, irresponsible waste of tax dollars the American people are fed up with," said Rep. Johnson's spokeswoman Jessica Towhey.
"Congressman Fincher does support this project," said his spokeswoman Sara Sendek. "He believes government does play a role in creating an environment that attracts private investment and job growth."
Taken individually, one could dismiss these requests as the politically, self-interested doings of lawmakers hoping to hold their seats. Together, however, they demonstrate an under-reported bit of political will to put a package of infrastructure spending together.
"I do think it is an area where there is popularity among both parties," said one top Democratic Senate aide. "It is definitely a candidate for something we'd consider [after the debt ceiling debate]."
Requests for reaction from Republican congressional leadership were not immediately returned. That said, one of the biggest GOP-backing interest groups, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has been supportive of infrastructure spending. And President Obama, in his twitter town hall event on Wednesday, pitched the topic yet again.
"For us to move forward on a major infrastructure initiative where we are putting people to work right now including construction workers … to put them to work rebuilding America at a time when interest rates are very low, contractors are looking for work, and the need is there, that is something that could make a huge positive impact on the economy overall," Obama said. "And it is an example of making an investment now that ends up having huge payoffs down the road."
"We haven't gotten the cooperation I would like to see [from Republicans]," he added. "But I'm just going to keep on trying and eventually, I'm sure the Speaker will see the light."
The devil will end up in the details. And even though there appears to be a greater appetite to do something on the infrastructure front, it's unlikely that even with a generous Republican caucus lawmakers will pass a bill that meets the country's needs. There is, currently, a service transportation bill making its way through Congress that deals with basic repairs to roads and bridges.
In terms of finding the type of funding needed for comprehensive modernization, "I'm not holding my breath," said the Senate aide.
"They can't get anything through and the stuff we are hearing on infrastructure is small potatoes," concurred a top labor official. "It is not anything we need to deal with our $2 trillion infrastructure deficit."