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American Shipper

Congressional mantra: Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure

Congressional mantra: Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure

Infrastructure, largely ignored by Congress for years in favor of more politically exciting issues, is now being viewed as a rescue vehicle for the U.S. economy.

   Democratic lawmakers in particular are calling for infrastructure spending as a central part of a second stimulus package to help pull the nation out of recession and stave off possible deflation.

   Congressional leaders plan to consider an emergency spending program during the lame duck session scheduled to begin Nov. 17 and move ahead with the second half of the plan early in the next session of Congress.

   Earlier estimates of a $60 billion to $100 billion stimulus package (including more unemployment benefits, Medicaid assistance and other measures) have been overtaken by new expectations of a stimulus package in the $500 billion to $600 billion range, with much of the money channeled to infrastructure, according to Norman Ornstein, research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

   “For the lame duck period and the first 100 days or so of the new Obama administration we may end up calling this the Cialis period of American politics: It will be all stimulus all the time,” he said last week at a post-election forum hosted by Congressional Quarterly.

   “And I will predict right now that the Wikipedia definition of infrastructure is going to grow longer and longer over the course of the coming months as almost every imaginable thing you want to do will get defined as infrastructure. And we will see a good deal of the environmental and energy agenda come in through an infrastructure package.

   “It might be framed in terms of rebuilding the electrical grid. Trying to get wind turbines up and running. Moving in to research and development for alternative sources of fuel. We’re possibly going to find some portions of the health and research agenda also folded into that stimulus and infrastructure package. That’s going to be the big deal, the big Kahuna” in Congress, he said.

   Democratic leaders will have to be careful in setting priorities for the lame duck session, Ornstein added. They might end up passing something that president-elect Obama would like to get credit for after taking office, or they could take up issues that are thornier, such as a Colombia Free Trade Agreement, to clear away the unpopular underbrush in advance of his inauguration, he said.

   The lame duck session could also be used to hold preliminary confirmation hearings so the new administration can get key Cabinet members in place as early as possible, Ornstein said.

   That creates the “delicious prospect” of vice president-elect Joseph Biden presiding over confirmation hearings for his own administration’s secretary of state, he said.

   Biden is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

   And it raises questions of whether Biden and Obama will vote as senators on the stimulus package and other issues while they are on the outside as part of the incoming administration. ' Eric Kulisch

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