Streams

Infrastructure Bank Likely to Return as a Political Weapon

Wednesday, October 12, 2011 - 04:29 PM

President Obama's jobs plan may have died in the Senate last night, but that that doesn't mean debate over a national infrastructure bank died along with it.

That's because Senate Democrats are likely to bring the infrastructure bank back as one of several stand-alone jobs bills expected on the floor in the coming weeks. It's all part of the president's promise to ratchet up political pressure on Republicans by making them vote on popular parts of his jobs bill piece by piece.

Senate aides say a federally-run infrastructure bank with$10 billion in loan-making authority is on their list, along with possible bills funding unemployment insurance, teachers and firefighters jobs, a payroll tax cut holiday and veterans hiring incentives.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) who directs Senate Democrats' political messaging, confirmed the spate of politically-charged jobs bills when he spoke to reporters just after the Senate defeated Obama's jobs bill last evening.

"This will be an ongoing fight until our Republican friends see they have to do something about jobs. And they will see it," he said.

House Republicans are not seeing it yet, at least on the infrastructure spending issue. A transportation subcommittee hearing on the topic quickly turned into a bashing session on the idea of an infrastructure bank, even though it enjoys bipartisan support in the Senate.

Republicans repeated their charge that the bank would create a new level of federal bureaucracy where loans and grants are already too slow to filter to states planning projects. Their primary concern: thirty-three states already have their own infrastructure banks funded under the federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act.

“Many people would be skeptical that bureaucrats in Washington would have any idea about which projects would be most worthy of a federal loan," said Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.), the subcommittee's chair.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who chairs the full House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, declared the federal infrastructure bank "dead on arrival in the House of Representatives."

But if Republican opposition is vehement, Democratic support, at least in the House, seems tepid. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the subcommittee's senior Democrat, pointed out loans from an infrastructure banks are just that: loans. They have to be paid back. And he said transportation projects without a dedicated revenue stream, like a toll road, are unlikely to generate the money. Instead, DeFazio and other liberal Democrats back the idea of increased direct government spending on transportation projects as a way to beef up infrastructure and create jobs.

“An infrastructure bank could be useful to help this country deal with a massive infrastructure deficit. But it has its limits,” DeFazio said.

That view was backed up by Ron Utt, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “The inevitable source of revenues through an infrastructure bank seem likely to be taxes,” he said.

Still, despite the chilly reception in the House,  Senate Democrats seem likely to go ahead with their strategy of pressuring the GOP with repeated votes on jobs projects including an infrastructure bank. The proposal is likely to be paid for with a millionaire's surtax similar to the one that funded the broader jobs bill.

"We are going to keep at it, and keep at it, and keep at it...and they will see," Schumer said.

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