As Congress comes back to work after a five-week recess, the White House is going on the offensive, pushing lawmakers to pass what’s normally routine legislation instead of getting tied up in politics.
But, the Alaskans in DC say this is a time of unparalleled gridlock, and they’re looking to the White House to lead.
At the end of this month, the federal Transportation Department loses its authorization to collect money and spend out new funds on highways, bridges, and transit projects. The White House wants to see Congress extend it – as it typically does. But Obama Administration officials like Transportation Deputy Secretary John Porcari says there’s a risk Congress could get log jammed by partisan disagreements.
“We’re appealing directly to the American people. Because the first rule of economic development is you hold on to the jobs that you have. There have always been philosophical and substantive issues on transportation, always dealt with in a bipartisan way. We think it can be done this time too,” Porcari said.
Porcari says what’s spooking the White House is the stalemate that happened last month over reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration. Congress left town without dealing with it, leading to a partial shutdown of the FAA that halted construction projects and put federal workers and construction contractors out of a job.
A short term fix was eventually found, but Porcari says it signaled a new game of chicken.
“What’s different between then and now is what we saw in the FAA bill, which is, what had been routine extensions in the past as in the case of the FAA bill was held up because of ideological issues. That is a sea change,” Porcari said.
The White House says if the Surface Transportation funding isn’t extended when it runs out later this month, it could jeopardize more than 8,500 jobs in Alaska and more than 1,100 highway and transit projects in the state. But John Katz, director of the Alaska Governor’s office in Washington, follows these issues closely and isn’t overly concerned.
“At this point we don’t see much push back in Congress to the idea of a clean and simple extension of existing transportation law,” Katz said.
Katz says transportation extensions aren’t usually partisan, but he admits that he’s seeing an unparalleled level of bickering and brinksmanship.
“I’ve been involved in public policy at the federal and state levels for almost 43 years and never in that period of time have I seen the kind of partisanship and other dynamics which exist now,” Katz said.
Senators Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski agree with Katz that the mood in Washington threatens to hold up important action. Senator Begich says it’s going to be a grinding few months as Congress tries to rise above partisan gridlock and tackle issues.
“So I do think it’s going to be piece by piece, and then they’re all going to clutter up at the end and then collide into a result of some sort. It’s like a whole bunch of meteors falling at one time. The question is will they hit at one place, or scatter all over. I don’t know,” Begich said.
Begich says the big focus of the coming weeks will be on jobs. And he says President Obama needs to hit a home run Thursday night in his jobs address to Congress.
Senator Lisa Murkowski says passing routine legislation and extending things like the transportation bill and the FAA should happen – especially as a way to keep jobs already in place. She wants to hear concrete plans from the President Thursday night.
“It would be helpful if the President would actually announce something that would actually help to incent job creation. I am, based on the press reports to this point in time, I’m really not anticipating that we’re going to see anything or hear anything new. I’d like to be proved wrong on it,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski has harsh words for the President, who she says has failed to lead on jobs. But the Senator says Congress holds some of the blame, too.
Both of Alaska’s Senators plan to attend the President’s speech Thursday night. Congressman Don Young is not back in Washington yet even though the House returned to work Wednesday.
His office says he’s in Alaska through the week and will be back in the Capitol soon.
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