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Obama talks up public works as remedy for high joblessness

Push intensifies for spending $50b on infrastructure

“America needs rebuilding,’’ President Obama said yesterday in the Rose Garden, promoting his latest initiative. “America needs rebuilding,’’ President Obama said yesterday in the Rose Garden, promoting his latest initiative. (J. Scott Applewhite/ Associated Press)
By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post / October 12, 2010

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WASHINGTON — President Obama called on lawmakers yesterday to back an ambitious initiative to modernize the nation’s roads, railways, and airports, saying the strategy would not only improve the economy in the long run but create good jobs now.

Following a report last week showing the jobless rate stuck at 9.6 percent, Obama touted his infrastructure plan as the ideal antidote, noting that unemployment is particularly high in the construction trades.

“Nearly one in five construction workers is still unemployed and needs a job. And that makes absolutely no sense when so much of America needs rebuilding,’’ Obama said in the Rose Garden.

“Investing in infrastructure is something members of both political parties have always supported,’’ Obama said. “There’s no reason why we can’t do this. This is work that needs to be done. There are workers who can do it. All we need is the political will.’’

The statement capped a series of White House activities intended to highlight Obama’s infrastructure initiative, unveiled a month ago as the White House came under increasing pressure to address unemployment before the Nov. 2 congressional elections. The proposal would create an infrastructure bank to prioritize projects of national importance and fund it with $50 billion generated by eliminating certain tax benefits for oil and gas companies.

Also yesterday, the Treasury Department and Council of Economic Advisers released a report concluding that this is the “optimal time’’ to invest in public works projects, not only because of the high jobless rate but also because of low prices in the construction sector. And Obama met with a bipartisan group of mayors, governors, and transportation officials, all eager to see money flow to neglected projects.

The group included Democratic Governors Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania and Jack Markell of Delaware, along with the mayors of Los Angeles, Baltimore, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Columbus, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Charleston, S.C. Also present: former transportation secretaries Sam Skinner and Norman Mineta, who last week released a separate report saying that the nation needs to spend $134 billion to $194 billion just on basic repairs.

With concern rising about the nation’s growing debt, that figure is more than the federal government can provide, administration officials said. Instead, they are pressing for the $50 billion infrastructure bank as the first portion of a six-year plan for transportation funding that has been under discussion for months in Congress.

With elections fast approaching, however, Obama’s exhortations fell on a deserted Capitol. The vast majority of lawmakers are back home campaigning to keep their jobs. Democrats are battling to maintain control in both the House and Senate, despite polls showing a wave of support for the GOP. Republicans need to pick up 39 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate to wrest control of Congress from the Democrats.

Lawmakers are due to reconvene after the elections. But administration officials acknowledged that action on Obama’s infrastructure initiative is unlikely until next year.