If jobs are top priority, why can't Congress pass a jobs bill?

The Senate rejected (again) two bills to create jobs by building roads and bridges on near party-line votes (again). Yes, both parties want the same thing, but Election 2012 is getting in the way.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio talks about jobs during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Friday.

If roads, bridges, and jobs back home are such priorities for members of Congress, why is it so hard to get a bill passed to support them?

Answer: Campaign 2012, unless there’s a package powerful enough to change the narrative.

As expected, the Senate on Thursday derailed two competing infrastructure bills on the usual, near-party-line votes. Democrats proposed paying for their $60 billion bill with a 0.07 percent tax hike on incomes over $1 million, a nonstarter for Republicans.

Republicans proposed extending the depleted Highway Trust Fund for two years and cutting red tape viewed by Democrats as crucial environmental protections.

It’s the same script that has defeated other elements of President Obama’s jobs strategy, but lately the partisan feuds have turned more personal and bitter. 

GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky charged that Democrats were “more interested in building a campaign message than in building roads and bridges.”

Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada said that Senator McConnell had been giving daily campaign speeches for 10 months and that Republicans were out to “get my job.”

But House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio is rolling out a new approach in that is drawing bipartisan interest, especially from lawmakers in energy-producing states.

The bill's details are still in the works, but it proposes funding new infrastructure and jobs measures with new revenues from a “permanent expansion of American-made energy production” – which means new oil and gas drilling. It also proposes speeding up bureaucratic approvals for new energy development, including opening offshore sites to exploration and drilling.

“This is I think the opposite of stimulus,” Mr. Boehner told a roundtable of reporters on Thursday. Instead of “just spending money on short-term fixes,” it creates a new revenue stream that does not raise taxes. “As American-made energy production increases, so too does the revenue for infrastructure projects,” he said.

Boehner, known for opposing member projects (known as earmarks) before it became popular, says that he has never voted for an infrastructure bill, because they include so many “frivolous projects.” The bill will also rein in funding for 116 other programs currently subsidized out of the Highway Trust fund, such as baseball parks and parking garages.

“A lot of issues on the public’s mind are resolved or helped by this bill,” says Rep. Jason Altmire (D) of Pennsylvania, who is cosponsoring similar legislation with GOP Rep. Tim Murphy, also from western Pennsylvania. 

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D) of Ohio says that she is “open to all proposals that deal with energy independence for Americans.” Ohio and Pennsylvania are both experiencing a boom in exploration for shale oil and natural gas.

The GOP-controlled House has already passed legislation to ease requirements for offshore drilling, expand production in the Gulf of Mexico, and open new areas on the Outer Continental Shelf for energy production. The bill could also revive GOP proposals to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to exploration and drilling – a toxic issue for many Senate Democrats. 

But the plan is drawing criticism from fiscal watchdog groups wary of tapping offshore royalties to fund infrastructure projects. “That money is supposed to go into the Treasury’s general fund to pay down the deficit,” says Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

“We shouldn’t be tapping undedicated sources of revenue and dedicating them to more infrastructure. We need to make sure we’re spending our transportation dollars more wisely before we spend more dollars,” he adds.

Whether a House GOP proposal, even with bipartisan support, can make headway in the Democrat-controlled Senate is not clear. At least 15 jobs-related House bills are pending in the Senate with little prospect of being allowed on the floor.  

“All of these stalled bills have bipartisan support,” said Boehner at a briefing on Friday. “Some are even backed by the Obama administration.”

“Heading into an election year, partisanship and polarization is high," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. "And those pressures are stronger than the pressures to fix the economy and alleviate the jobs situation.” 

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