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Obama seeks bipartisan support for infrastructure upgrade

By Tom Cohen, CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Obama calls for a $50 billion plan to start upgrading infrastructure
  • NEW: Transportation secretary calls claims that stimulus bill failed "nonsense"
  • Some Republicans attend a meeting with the president on the matter
  • The $50 billion could be paid for by closing tax code loopholes, some officials say

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama called Monday for Congress to approve a $50 billion plan to begin upgrading the nation's crumbling infrastructure, saying such an investment is vital to creating much-needed construction jobs and keeping the nation competitive in the global economy.

In a Rose Garden statement at the White House, Obama called for bipartisan support when Congress returns after the November 2 mid-term elections so that the first phase of a proposed six-year infrastructure development plan can begin.

"We've always had the best infrastructure," Obama said, noting that one in five construction workers are unemployed right now. "This is work that needs to be done. There are workers ready to do it. All we need is political will."

The president first announced the plan on Labor Day, and present and former Cabinet members as well as some governors and mayors around the nation joined him to support the initiative.

Despite their call, it remains uncertain if the issue can overcome the deep partisan divide in Congress, especially after an election expected to erode Democratic majorities in both chambers or even return Republicans to control.

The main Republican campaign theme for the upcoming election has been excessive government spending under Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress that has failed to lower the unemployment rate below 9 percent. In particular, Republicans say the $787 billion economic stimulus bill passed last year has failed to bring promised jobs and other economic benefits.

Obama and Democrats say the stimulus bill prevented the recession that began in the previous administration from worsening into a full economic depression.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood responded sharply on that topic when questioned by reporters Monday about whether new infrastructure spending would provide better results than the stimulus bill.

Noting that the $48 billion in stimulus money for the transportation sector funded 14,000 projects that employed thousands of people, LaHood said that Americans know the bill worked "because they see their friends and neighbors working on roads and bridges and transit systems."

"The idea that our stimulus didn't work is nonsense," he said.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat and strong Obama supporter, called stimulus spending on infrastructure "the single best job creator we can do in this country."

"It created well-paying jobs that can't be outsourced," Rendell said. "It's just what the economy needs."

A study by the Department of Treasury and the Council of Economic Advisers shows a majority of infrastructure-related jobs would come in the construction field, followed by manufacturing and retail.

LaHood added that Congress has traditionally passed transportation bills containing infrastructure investment with strong bipartisan support.

"There are no Democratic or Republicans bridges or roads," he said, adding that Democratic Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told him there is Republican support for new infrastructure investment.

Obama and LaHood said the cost of new investment would be paid for, rather than adding to the debt. However, LaHood stopped short of offering specific ways to do so, saying only that a number of options were being considered.

Senior administration officials say private funds also would be used for the infrastructure overhaul. They suggested the $50 billion from Congress could be paid for by closing loopholes in the tax code related to oil and gas production or through other cost-cutting measures.

CNN's Rachel Streitfeld contributed to this story.

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