President Obama is calling for a $50 billion down payment on the nation's crumbling roads, railways and bridges, but his ambitious new spending proposal faces significant political roadblocks.
“Nearly one in five construction workers is still unemployed and needs a job, and that makes absolutely no sense at a time when there's so much of America that needs rebuilding,” Obama said Monday in the Rose Garden.
It's unclear how the White House would pay for the program, which would grow tenfold, to $500 billion, over six years. Obama insists he would not add to the nation's deficit and would resist raising gas taxes to fund the projects.
Either way, with Americans soured on stimulus programs and lawmakers deeply leery of new spending, the president's latest initiative may stall out well before the nation's highways are repaved.
Rep. John Mica of Florida, the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called the administration's proposal “a pitiful and tardy political excuse” for stalling a $500 billion transportation bill last year.
“Even more astounding is their regurgitation and attempted justification of a $50 billion spending proposal while more than 60 percent of the stimulus infrastructure dollars remain unspent,” Mica said.
The administration contends much of the stimulus has been allocated, but exactly how much remains unspent was not immediately available.
A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 68 percent of Americans perceive Obama's $814 billion stimulus package to have been wasted, with just 29 percent believing it was well-spent. Those sentiments, reflected in other polls, make it tough for lawmakers to embrace what appears to be a smaller second economic-stimulus bill.
The White House refutes any suggestion that the stimulus was a failure.
“The idea that stimulus didn't work is nonsense,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. “It has worked.”
The White House says the stimulus bill saved or created 3 million jobs. Critics contend that with the economy still struggling and unemployment hovering near double-digits, Obama's spending programs have failed to deliver.
By couching the new spending proposal as a jobs bill, however, Obama still can take credit for trying to do more to address voters' top priority even if the effort fails and he can blame congressional Republicans for such a failure.
“This is something for which there has traditionally been broad, bipartisan support,” Obama said.
To bolster his case, Obama gathered a large group of mayors and governors at the White House on Monday to speak in favor of the plan and released a report by his own Treasury Department and Council of Economic Advisers touting the job-creation benefits of the proposal.
As envisioned, the new federal funding would be spent on roads, airports and transit systems. Most of the jobs created would be in the construction field, which has an unemployment rate of 17 percent, higher than the overall national rate of 9.6 percent.
Obama said U.S. investment in infrastructure lags behind Russia and China and erodes the nation's “competitive edge.” Delaying the work will cost more later, he said.
“We're already paying for our failure to act,” Obama said. “Other nations understand this. They are going all-in.”