By Alexander Bolton – 10/28/11 06:00 AM ET
Senate Democrats will try to pass President Obama’s $60 billion infrastructure bill next week, despite the past opposition of a powerful Democratic chairwoman to a major component of the legislation.
The bill includes $10 billion for a national infrastructure bank, even though Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said last year she would “never” support such a proposal.
Boxer’s committee has jurisdiction over transportation and infrastructure issues. She is working with Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the panel’s ranking Republican, on a two-year, $109 billion surface transportation authorization bill.
Boxer spokeswoman Mary Kerr said her boss has recently expressed support for an infrastructure bank.
She pointed to a July statement in which Boxer voiced support but cautioned that the bank should not substitute for core federal transportation programs.
“Yes, we want [an] infrastructure bank; we love it; it is great. That is not the core program. But we should build support for it, but it is not the core program,” Boxer said at a committee hearing, according to a transcript provided by the panel.
Boxer is one of two Democrats who in the past have criticized the policy components of the bill, the second installment of Obama’s jobs plan.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) opposed a similar infrastructure-heavy stimulus proposal last year when he was in the midst of one of the nation’s toughest Senate races. Bennet says he won’t block bringing the bill to the floor, but he’s not making any commitment to support its passage.
Democratic leaders have had trouble keeping their caucus unified behind Obama’s jobs proposals. Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.), an independent who caucuses with Democrats, last week voted against a $35 billion funding package for teachers and first responders.
Boxer urged a senior administration official last year to improve the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) instead of creating a new federal bureaucracy by setting up an infrastructure bank.
“I’m just telling you now, this is really important. You may not have the support for an infrastructure bank in other committees,” Boxer told Roy Kienitz, Transportation undersecretary for policy.
“I don’t even know about in this committee,” Boxer said. “But in other committees you may not have it and so you need to be open to using your other tools, such as TIFIA, and making it function more like an infrastructure bank.”
Boxer expressed concern that an infrastructure bank could muddle transportation funds with general Treasury funds.
“My experience is when the funds go back to the general Treasury, then they don’t specifically get used for transportation,” she said. “That’s why I like the highway trust fund.”
Kienitz said the administration envisioned the congressional Appropriations committees would make regular allocations to fund the bank.
Boxer did not attend a press call last week when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the infrastructure package.
Senate Republican aides said Boxer’s support for the bill is lukewarm because it competes with her bipartisan proposal to fund transportation programs.
Reid told reporters last week that the jobs bill slated for floor action would not leech political support from Boxer’s legislation.
“We have an unlimited need in this country, literally unlimited need in this country for infrastructure improvement and development,” Reid said.
“And that bill is for a two-year period of time,” he said of Boxer’s legislation, contrasting it to the upcoming jobs bill. “This is a shot in the arm for the economy right now.”
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has opposed a national infrastructure bank as an expensive and time-consuming expansion of bureaucracy.
TheAmerican Roadand Transportation Builders Association supports the infrastructure bank but believes it will make only a modest contribution to the nation’s transportation needs.
Dave Bauer, vice president of government relations at the group, said there’s no guarantee that infrastructure bank funds would be used for transportation projects, as opposed to being spent on school, waterway or Internet broadband projects.
“From a transportation standpoint, the infrastructure bank can certainly help, but there’s no guarantee the funds or a portion of the funds will be used for transportation, and it is in no way a substitute for the core federal surface transportation programs,” he said.
Bauer noted that public-private projects funded by the bank would need a way to recoup costs to pay off private investors. He said transportation projects funded by the bank would likely include tolls to provide future revenue.
Bennet will also have to reconcile his past opposition to a central component of the jobs package. Last year, during his reelection campaign, Bennet pledged to oppose a $50 billion infrastructure package Obama recommended to spur economic growth.
“I will not support additional spending in a second stimulus package,” Bennet said at the time, according to the Denver Post.
Other Democrats, including Missouri Senate candidate Robin Carnahan and former Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.), criticized the proposal at the time.
An aide to Bennet said it would be wrong to draw any correlation between last year’s proposal and the infrastructure installment of Obama’s new jobs plan.
The aide said Bennet opposed last year’s plan because there were still unspent funds provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The aide said Bennet would vote to begin debating the $60 billion jobs bill, but declined to say whether his boss would support final passage.