On The Waterfront, Obama Contends Bridge Repair Coffers Beg Refilling

Speaking on the Potomac River waterfront, President Obama advocated for renovating aging American infrastructure with the historic Francis Scott Key Bridge poised behind him. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. President Obama turned his attention away from immigration and Supreme Court decisions today to highlight the federal Highway Trust Fund. That's the source of financing for road and bridge repair nationwide. The president is calling for new ways to replenish the fund and he did that while standing near a bridge, the one in Washington that's named first Francis Scott Key. NPR's Mara Liasson joins us now from the White House with more on the president's plans. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: It is a historic bridge to be sure, and the man from who it's named wrote the words to the national anthem 200 years ago this summer. But what exactly was the president doing with the Key Bridge as the backdrop?

LIASSON: Well, he was expounding on a very familiar theme of his, which is the need for the United States to spend more on infrastructure. The president has done a lot of events calling attention to our crumbling roads and bridges, and pointing out that we spend less per capita than any other developed country on infrastructure. But particularly, as you mentioned, he wanted to call attention to a looming deadline. In August, the Highway Trust Fund runs out and Congress hasn't yet acted to replenish it. It's funded through the gas tax, which hasn't been increased in a very long time, and it's failing to keep the trust fund solvent.

The president said if it runs out, we're going to lose 700,000 jobs, road and bridge repairs like the ones that are occurring on Kay Bridge right now will stop. He wants to fund the trust fund by closing tax loopholes for corporations and the wealthy. Congress doesn't agree and there's the very familiar stalemate.

SIEGEL: I gather he expressed some real frustration with Congress in the speech today.

LIASSON: He really did, and he has been repeatedly railing at the Congress for doing nothing - particularly the House Republicans, whether it's infrastructure, immigration. The president has been channeling his inner Harry Truman lately and here's a little taste of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: But so far, House Republicans have refused to act on this idea. I haven't heard a good reason why they haven't acted, it's not like they've been busy with other stuff.

SIEGEL: Well, on other stuff, President Obama has said that he'll take executive action where Congress isn't acting. What is he planning to do? What can he do in the case of the Highway Trust Fund?

LIASSON: Well, that's the thing, there's really not that much that he can do. You know, executive action, even though it's extremely controversial right now and a source of great tension between the president and Congress, it's a very limited tool. He can, for instance, make federal contractors pay a higher minimum wage, but he can't extend that to the country. Executive action isn't permanent, he can't appropriate money, he can't change the law. So this one - the Highway Trust Fund is truly up to Congress. And the irony is that while Speaker Boehner is suing the president because of what Republicans say is the imperial presidency overreaching - overuse of executive action, the president is really frustrated that he can do very little with executive action. Today he said he was very defiant today. He said, so sue me, as long as they're doing nothing, I'm not going to apologize for trying to do something.

SIEGEL: Mara, isn't this historically what members of Congress love - repairing bridges and highways and making life better, the infrastructure better back in their districts?

LIASSON: It used to be before the Tea Party and before appropriators or appropriation became a dirty word in Washington, yes. It was what members of Congress were sent to Congress to do, to bring back money to their home districts. But particularly in the Republican Party, that has become really kryptonite lately.

SIEGEL: OK, thanks Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: NPR's Mara Liasson speaking to us from the White House.

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