WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is asking Congress to approve at least $50 billion in long-term spending in the nation's roads, railways and runways in a pre-election effort to show he's trying to stimulate the sputtering economy.
The infrastructure spending is part of a package of targeted proposals the White House announced on Monday. With November's elections for control of Congress approaching, Obama planned to discuss the proposal later Monday at a Labor Day event in Milwaukee.
The proposals would require congressional approval, which is highly uncertain with many legislators and voters worried about adding to federal deficits that are already sky-high. With Republicans saying spending is out of control and polls showing many people want to end Democrats' control of Congress, even many Democratic lawmakers are reluctant to approve new spending so close to Election Day.
Even if legislators could pass a bill in the short window between their return to Capitol Hill in mid-September and the elections, the early projects would not create jobs immediately. Senior administration officials, who would not be quoted by name before Obama's announcement, said the initial projects would lead to new jobs over the course of 2011.
The officials said the initial $50 billion would be the beginning of a six-year program of transportation improvements, but they did not give an overall figure. The proposal has a longer-range focus than last year's economic stimulus bill, which was more targeted on immediate job creation.
The goals of the infrastructure plan include: rebuilding 150,000 miles of roads; constructing and maintaining 4,000 miles of railways, enough to go coast-to-coast; shorter, high speed rail projects; and rehabilitating or reconstructing 150 miles of airport runways, while also installing a next generation air navigation system designed to reduce travel times and delays.
Obama will also call for the creation of a permanent infrastructure bank that would focus on funding national and regional infrastructure projects.
Administration officials wouldn't say what the total cost of the infrastructure projects would be, but did say the initial $50 billion represents a significant percentage. Officials said the White House would consider closing a number of special tax breaks for oil and gas companies to pay for the proposal.
Obama made infrastructure improvements a central part of the $814 billion stimulus Congress passed last year, but with that spending winding down, the economy's growth has slowed. Officials said this infrastructure package differs from the stimulus because it's aimed at long-term growth, while still focusing on creating jobs in the short-term.
In a Labor Day interview on CBS' "Early Show," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said the plan Obama was to unveil Monday would "put construction workers, welders, electricians back to work ... folks that have been unemployed for a long time."
With the unemployment rate ticking up to 9.6 percent, and polls showing the midterm elections could be dismal for Democrats, the president has promised to unveil a series of new measures on the economy.
In addition to Monday's announcement in Milwaukee, Obama will travel to Cleveland Wednesday to pitch a $100 billion proposal to increase and make permanent research and development tax credits for businesses, a White House official said.
While the idea is popular in Congress, coming up with offsetting tax increases or spending cuts has been a stumbling block. Similar to his proposal to pay for the infrastructure projects, Obama will ask lawmakers to close tax breaks for oil and gas companies and multinational corporations to pay for the plan.
Other stimulus measures the administration is considering include extending a law passed in March that exempts companies that hire unemployed workers from paying Social Security taxes on those workers through December. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has proposed extending the exemption an additional six months.
Obama is also continuing to prod the Senate to pass the small business bill that calls for about $12 billion in tax breaks and a $30 billion fund to help unfreeze lending. Republicans have likened the bill to the unpopular bailout of the financial industry. And the president wants to make permanent the portion of George W. Bush's tax cuts affecting the middle class.
Wary of the public's concern over rising deficits, the administration insists a second stimulus plan, similar to last year's $814 billion bill, is not in the works.