President Obama put some local pressure on the top two Republicans in Congress on Thursday, using a speech near a bridge connecting their home states to demand they support his jobs bill. Republicans countered that the stimulus bill he's pushing wouldn't do much to rebuild the bridge anyway.
Standing by the Brent Spence Bridge between Ohio and Kentucky, the president singled out House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. In an unusual move, the president acknowledged he chose the location because he wanted to highlight an issue in the backyards of the two leading Republicans.
"They can either kill this jobs bill, or they can help pass this jobs bill. I know these men care about their states," Obama said. "Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge. Help us rebuild America. ... Pass this bill."
But Republicans have been complaining for days that the project Obama was using as a backdrop would not be suddenly fast-tracked because of the jobs bill.
"President says the stimulus bill will rebuild 'this bridge.' Someone missed the front page of the (Cincinnati) paper," tweeted McConnell spokesman Don Stewart. He was referring to the front page of The Cincinnati Enquirer, which has several articles suggesting the president's visit and jobs bill would not guarantee repairs to the bridge. One headline called it a "prop."
GOP lawmakers noted the project is at least four years from being shovel-ready. They also questioned why the president was holding his event on the Ohio side since the bridge is owned by Kentucky.
"But I respect his decision in a presidential year to do it on the Cincinnati side of the river considering the Ohio electoral votes," Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Ky., quipped.
Davis and other Republicans acknowledged the importance of the bridge for people traveling between Ohio and Covington, Ky. But they said the stimulus bill won't necessarily help the project along in the near-term.
"The Brent Spence Bridge is technically not a shovel-ready project," Davis told Fox News.
The Republican National Committee pointed to reporting from FOX 19 in Cincinnati noting that even if the federal government contributes $1.9 billion, another $500 million from state and local authorities would still be needed. The project so far has only $90 million to its name.
With full funding, requirements like environmental studies would still push ground-breaking off for another four years.
"Obama's stimulus rhetoric fails to span the gap to Realityville," the RNC said in a memo.
On the Senate floor Thursday morning, McConnell complained that the administration was trying to use controversial stimulus proposals to fund infrastructure projects that should already be funded.
"The president made the same promises when he was selling his first stimulus," McConnell said.
In a letter to Obama, Davis and Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, who represents the other side of the bridge, thanked him for his interest but urged him to instead throw his support behind a bill that would "stop the federal government from imposing excessive regulations on cement manufacturers that threaten thousands of American jobs." They noted he would be near a concrete plant Thursday afternoon.
The bill, which passed out of committee Wednesday, is headed for a floor vote in the coming weeks. It would stop regulation that Republicans say will cost business millions of dollars annually in compliance costs, and could lead to the shut-down of as many as a dozen plants.
But environmentalists and others are opposed to the bill. Earth Justice said in a statement that the bill would erode Clean Air Act protections against some of the nation's "worst polluters" by stripping restrictions on emissions from cement companies. The group said the bill would encourage the companies "to burn tires, plastics and other wastes without controlling or monitoring the resulting pollution."
Regarding the trip to the Ohio bridge, the White House says Obama's visit isn't political, calling the bridge "functionally obsolete."
"It desperately needs rebuilding, as do substandard roads and bridges all across America," White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage said. "As the two most powerful Republicans in Washington, Speaker Boehner and Senator (Mitch) McConnell can either kill this jobs bill or help the president pass it right away.
"Instead of looking for every excuse to justify doing nothing about the damaged infrastructure in their states, we believe it's in their interest and the country's interest to act as soon as possible and put people back to work."
Obama and others argue that the government has a responsibility to fix America's crumbling bridges, pointing to the country's decaying infrastructure as a symptom of lagging competitiveness globally. The group Americans United for Change referenced a report claiming the president's bill would ensure thousands of structurally deficient bridges would be safe, in pushing Congress to pass the package.
McConnell said Wednesday Obama's visit to the bridge isn't fooling anyone.
"President Obama may think the best way to distract people from the challenges we face is to stand near a bridge in a swing state and pit one group of Americans against another, and hope his critics look bad if they don't go along with him," he said on the Senate floor. "But I don't think he's fooling anybody."
Chabot said that while he supporting funding for the bridge, the issue shouldn't be used to rally support for the president's $450 billion stimulus bill. "The first stimulus didn't work and we don't need another one," he said.
The bridge, built in 1963, has long been in the sights of federal officials looking to renovate the stretch along Interstate 75, which the Federal Highway Administration says is long overdue for renovation to accommodate massive growth in the region over the years.
Analysis for the bridge repair began in earnest this year after initial drawings were submitted in April 2010. This month the FHA was to begin taking public comment. The FHA construction schedule lists its start time in 2015, with an estimated completion date of 2022.