Obama, GOP leader both pitch tax reform, transit investments

President Obama speaks at the Union Depot in St. Paul, Minn., Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, where he announced a new competition encouraging investments for job creation and infrastructure as part of his "Year of Action." AP

President Obama on Wednesday put forward a major plan to invest $302 billion over four years to refurbish the nation's highways, rail systems and other modes of transit. The proposal comes months ahead of a deadline Congress must meet to renew a critical transit fund.

Mr. Obama is pitching the idea of pairing the renewed funding with tax reform -- an idea similar to the one pitched hours earlier by a top congressional Republican. That proposal, however, seems unlikely to go anywhere in an election year.

"At a time when companies are saying they intend to hire more people this year, we need to make that decision easier," Mr. Obama said from St. Paul, Minnesota, where after touring a light rail transit system. "Rebuild our transportation systems, our power grids... all the things that commerce relies on."

He added, "This is one of Congress' major responsibilities, fund new infrastructure projects."

Part of Mr. Obama's proposal includes dedicating $63 billion over four years to the Highway Trust Fund, which expires at the end of September. If Congress doesn't renew the fund, the president said, "we could see construction projects stop in their tracks, machines sitting idle, workers off the job."

Under the president's plan, half of the infrastructure investments would be paid for by a one-time, $150 billion injection of revenue from "pro-growth" business tax reform. Earlier in the day, House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., rolled out a comprehensive tax reform plan that include an eight-year, $126.5 billion investment in the Highway Trust Fund.

Congressional leaders, however, have already said that tax reform is unlikely to happen this year, ahead of the midterm elections.

"I think we will not be able to finish the job, regretfully, in 2014," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday. "Now, if we had a new Republican Senate next year, coupled with a Republican House, I think we could have at least a congressional agreement that this is about getting rates down, and making America more competitive."

Members of Congress plan to consider proposals this summer to renew the Highway Trust Fund, but those plans are unlikely to be funded through tax reform. Acknowledging that reality, the White House said in a fact sheet that the administration is not wedded to the idea. Mr. Obama, it said, "will work closely with Congress and listen to their ideas for how to achieve this important objective."

Rolling out another element of his infrastructure plans, Mr. Obama said Wednesday, ""While Congress is deciding what to do next, I'm going to do what I can."

The administration is launching a competition for $600 million in TIGER grant funding, a program that started in 2009 under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 -- also known as the "stimulus, which actually worked despite what everybody claims," Mr. Obama said. He noted that the Union Depot he toured that day was expanded with TIGER grant program, remarking that the depot "symbolizes what's possible."

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