WASHINGTON — Warning of potentially a million lost jobs, President Barack Obama urged Congress on Wednesday to pass bills to fund highways and air travel. Key House Republicans said they’re willing to do just that, but potential stumbling blocks remain.
For construction workers and their families across the country, passage of the bills “represents the difference between making ends meet or not making ends meet,” Obama said during a speech in the Rose Garden.
The federal highway construction program expires Sept. 30. So does the 18.4 cents a gallon federal gasoline tax and the 24.4 cents a gallon diesel tax that pay for much of the program.
The program has been limping along for two years under a series of short-terms extensions and money infusions from the general treasury. Congress has been unable to figure out how to either raise enough money to pay for road, bridge, transit and other transportation programs, or to cut back spending in those areas. Fuel tax revenues are declining.
A Senate proposal to extend the program would last only two years and cost $109 billion, while the House is considering a longer, six-year bill that could cut spending from current levels. Neither proposal is far enough along to be passed before current program authority expires. That means short-extensions will be needed.
Rep. John Mica of Florida, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, said in a statement Wednesday that he’s willing to go along with a short-term extension of the highway program, but just this one time. And he didn’t say how much he would propose spending. He has previously said that the program shouldn’t spend more than fuel taxes bring in.
That could be a problem with the Senate, where key lawmakers want to continue highway spending at current levels.
“We’re still running all of our numbers with respect to short term and long term, and ultimately our goal is to ensure that the trust fund remains solvent … that we don’t continue to rely on general fund bailouts,” said Caroline Califf, a spokeswoman for Mica.
The president said 4,000 workers would be immediately furloughed without pay if the program isn’t extended, and a significant delay could lead to 1 million workers losing their jobs over the next year.
“All of them will be out of a job just because of politics in Washington,” Obama said. “That’s just not acceptable.”
Obama also called on lawmakers to pass a bill to extend Federal Aviation Administration spending authority that’s free of extraneous policy issues before the agency’s current authority expires on Sept. 16. The FAA was partially shut down for two weeks this summer because lawmakers couldn’t agree to an extension in time.
While Congress ultimately reached an agreement, the partial shutdown affected tens of thousands of workers and cost the government about $30 million a day in uncollected airline ticket taxes.
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner accused the president of scare tactics.
“Aside from the president today, no one has suggested the highway bill will be allowed to expire,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said. “Republicans support an extension of the highway bill and appreciate the need for a long-term solution for infrastructure projects.”
Mica indicated he’s open to supporting a short-term extension of FAA programs for the 22nd time in four years, but would consult with GOP leaders first. He stopped short of promising not to use the must-pass bill to push through policy changes that haven’t been agreed to by Senate Democrats.
That’s what Mica did this summer on a bill to keep the FAA operating, triggering a showdown with the Senate. The White House said Obama wanted to push for the transportation bill extensions now in order to avoid a similar standoff again. The looming shutdown was overshadowed by the all-consuming debt debate in Washington, and the president didn’t start publicly pushing for an extension until after the FAA had already partially shut down.
Looking to take a different approach this time, the White House gathered construction workers and administration officials in the Rose Garden Wednesday morning so the president could attempt to get ahead of the issue. He was also flanked by the leaders of two occasionally warring factions — AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and David Chavern, chief operating officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“You cannot take for granted that the things that had bipartisan support will have it going forward,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
The push for infrastructure spending comes as Obama prepares to unveil a jobs package next week that mixes spending and tax breaks. The White House said Obama wanted to make the case for his new initiatives before a joint session of Congress.
The president’s jobs package is expected to include some proposed spending on infrastructure and public works projects, investments that Obama said were vital to the nation’s economy.
“We have to have a serious conversation about making real, lasting investments in infrastructure from better ports to a smarter electric grid to high speed rail,” Obama said. “At a time when interest rates are low and workers are unemployed, the best time to make those investments is now, not once another levee fails or another bridge falls. Right now is when we need to be making these decisions.”