Warning of dire consequences for the nation's workers, President Barack Obama on Wednesday urged Congress to extend bills to fund highways and air travel that he said would protect a million jobs.
"For construction workers and their families across the country, it represents the difference between making ends meet or not making ends meet," Obama said during a speech in the Rose Garden.
The federal highway spending bill at issue expires Sept. 30. A Senate proposal would last only two years and cost $109 billion, while the House is considering a longer, six-year bill that could cut spending from current levels.
The president said 4,000 workers would be immediately furloughed without pay if the bill is not extended, and a significant delay could lead to 1 million workers losing their job over the next year.
"All of them will be out of a job just because of politics in Washington," Obama said. "That's just not acceptable. It's inexcusable."
Obama also called on lawmakers to pass a clean extension of a bill to fund the Federal Aviation Administration before it expires in mid-September. The FAA was already partially shut down for two weeks this summer, because lawmakers couldn't agree to an extension in time.
While Congress ultimately reached an agreement, the partial shutdown affected tens of thousands of workers and cost the government about $30 million a day.
The White House said Obama wanted to push for the transportation bill extensions now in order to avoid a similar standoff again. The looming shutdown was overshadowed by the all-consuming debt debate in Washington, and the president didn't start publicly pushing for an extension until after the FAA had already partially shut down.
Looking to take a different approach this time, the White House gathered construction workers and administration officials in the Rose Garden Wednesday morning so the president could attempt to get ahead of the issue. He was also flanked by the leaders of two occasionally warring factions — AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and David Chavern, chief operating officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"You cannot take for granted that the things that had bipartisan support will have it going forward," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday.
Republican reaction to Obama's push for the highway bill was swift, with a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner accusing the president of using irresponsible scare tactics.
"Aside from the president today, no one has suggested the highway bill will be allowed to expire," Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said. "Republicans support an extension of the highway bill and appreciate the need for a long-term solution for infrastructure projects."
The push for infrastructure spending comes as Obama prepares to unveil a jobs package next week that mixes spending and tax breaks. The White House said Obama would make the case for his new initiatives Wednesday before a joint session of Congress.
The president's jobs package is expected to include some proposed spending on infrastructure and public works projects, investments that Obama said Wednesday are vital to the nation's economy.
"We have to have a serious conversation about making real, lasting investments in infrastructure from better ports to a smarter electric grid to high speed rail," Obama said. "At a time when interest rates are low and workers are unemployed, the best time to make those investments is now, not once another levee fails or another bridge falls. Right now is when we need to be making these decisions."