Biden calls on governors to lead nation

Win McNamee, Getty Images

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Vice President Joe Biden on Friday condemned the political gridlock crippling Washington, calling on Republican and Democratic governors alike to lead the nation "out of this mess" while insisting that Congress approve billions of dollars to repair the country's aging infrastructure.

"The way things have gotten today, and I'm not singling out any party or any group of people - the politics, the culture in Washington, it's become too personal, it's too corrosive," Biden said during a meeting of the National Governors Association. "I think you've got to lead us out of this mess we're in."

The vice president's comments came during the first day of the governors' three-day conference in Nashville, where state leaders from both parties gathered to collaborate despite intensifying partisan differences on immigration, health care and education.

Despite the bipartisan tone, the approaching midterm elections loomed over the gathering.

Many governors face voters in an election season that will decide the balance of power in statehouses from Nevada to New Hampshire and could end some presidential campaigns before they begin.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a first-term governor locked in a heated re-election battle, lead a group of ambitious Republicans that appeared at the downtown Nashville conference. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley is among the Democrats weighing a 2016 presidential run.

"You can be in a room where you have six, seven, eight people who are thinking they might run for president in two years, which makes for some interesting personal dynamics at times," Tennessee's Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said.

Biden, a possible presidential contender himself, struck a distinctly cooperative tone in his remarks.

The political climate in Washington, he said, was less divisive when he began serving in the Senate more than three decades ago, a time when white segregationists served openly in Congress.

"Even in those days, the politics was intense, ideological differences were real, but it never got to where it is today," Biden said. "It was never personal. It was never cast in the context of you're good or bad."

Biden said Democrats and Republicans have long agreed on the need to invest in the nation's infrastructure and workforce development, although in the current climate even infrastructure spending is bogged down by politics. He described infrastructure as historically the one "truly bipartisan issue" and said with job training and transportation funding, the United States will "own the 21st century."

Governors have been concerned about the impending deadline for Congress to pay for the federal Highway Trust Fund, which helps states maintain their transportation infrastructure. While a short-term bill is expected to clear Congress, governors want a long-term plan. Biden agreed, saying the nation's governors are "absolutely right" to want one.

But most governors attending the event were hesitant to suggest specific solutions to bridge a funding shortfall.

Fuel taxes are the Highway Trust Fund's main revenue source, but they haven't been raised in 21 years and aren't keeping pace with spending. A bipartisan Senate proposal to increase the federal gas tax has so far failed to gain traction.

"I'm sort of indifferent as to the source of the funding," said Jack Markell, the Democratic governor of Delaware, which was forced to close a damaged interstate bridge last month. "But I think what we can't have is a series of these eight-month stop-gap measures."

Walker, the Wisconsin Republican, would not endorse an increase in the federal gas tax when asked, but he called for "other revenue options."

"It's a big deal," Walker said. "So many states like Wisconsin are dependent on the federal gas tax."

Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear of Kentucky said his state has had to put $185 million of road projects on hold because of the congressional impasse.

It's unclear what role, if any, infrastructure problems will play in the coming elections, although Washington's struggle with what was long a bipartisan issue is emblematic of voters' overall view of Congress, which is at historic lows.

"We're looking to you," Biden told the governors. "Continue to teach us a lesson by getting along with one another."

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