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Democrats’ Next Jobs Message: Traffic, Potholes Democrats’ Next Jobs Message: Traffic, Potholes

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ECONOMY

Democrats’ Next Jobs Message: Traffic, Potholes

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Construction takes place on Highway 71 south of Lamar, Mo., in 2009.(Mike Gullett/AP)

Police officers, firefighters, and teachers are yesterday’s news. Senate Democrats are moving on to contractors and construction workers. After the defeat on Thursday night of legislation to give $35 billion to states and cities to hire and retain teachers and first responders, Senate Democratic leaders and the administration are touting the next proposal to highlight the individual components of President Obama’s jobs message. Later in the year, look for legislation on unemployed veterans and extension of the payroll-tax deduction.

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This piece of the president's jobs bill seeks $50 billion for immediate spending on the nation’s transportation network and another $10 billion to form an infrastructure bank to lure more private-sector investment into the maintenance and construction of roads, bridges, railways, and runways. In keeping with the “us versus them” theme of the Democrats’ jobs message, the bill includes a 0.7 percent surtax on people whose annual incomes are more than $1 million to pay for the investment.

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The millionaires tax is aimed squarely at Republicans, who didn't flinch when voting against a similar tax on the teacher/first responder bill. Republicans aren't any more likely to do so when the Senate votes on the infrastructure bill during the week of Oct. 31, after it returns from a weeklong break, but Democrats will be able to feed more rhetoric to the discontent that characterizes the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon. "The only ones that don’t support a small, very small surtax on people making more than a million a year are Senate Republicans," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

 

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Transportation legislation is traditionally bipartisan. Including the Republican-opposed millionaires tax will likely change that dynamic for the Senate infrastructure bill, which may be the point. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican from Illinois, will travel the country sounding the call to fellow Republicans to at least allow transportation monies to flow to the states. "We proved that we can put people to work with the economic stimulus we had over the last two years. The economic stimulus created 65,000 jobs," LaHood said. Some Republicans argue that the infrastructure stimulus money has not been spent fast enough, but Transportation Department officials say that virtually all of the $48 billion for infrastructure in the stimulus bill has been obligated to states to spend. States now have the responsibility to complete the projects and then ask for reimbursement from the feds.

Obama made a similar infrastructure proposal one year ago (without the tax provision) and got a tepid response from Congress, even when the House was still in Democratic hands. The measure's fate this time around isn’t likely to be much different, but Senate floor votes will give Democrats and the White House the chance to harp on a few political easy targets—potholes and traffic.

Policymakers in the transportation arena have been wringing their hands for most of the year waiting to see if Congress can pass a long-term surface-transportation bill, now more than two years overdue. The most recent extension of the highway funding program expires on March 31. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will meet next month to pass a two-year surface-transportation bill, but it is unclear whether House Republicans will accept it. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., insists on a six-year bill, but that time frame would require budget cuts that many lawmakers won’t be able to stomach.

 

Obama’s $50 billion infrastructure proposal is only a part of the roughly $300 billion that would be needed to fund the nation’s transportation systems at current levels for the next six years. "This is a shot in the arm for the economy right now," Reid said.

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