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Chamber of Commerce Targets ‘Wavering Republicans’ on Week Off

Business Groups Target ‘Wavering Republicans’
The extension of transportation funding expires March 31, and the Congressional Budget Office has said the U.S. Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road and transit projects, may be unable to meet its obligations on highway and bridge projects as soon as October. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Business groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are spending more than $500,000 on advertising to press Republican lawmakers, on recess this week, to back a stalled transportation spending bill.

The Chamber, the largest business lobby, and other organizations are running ads this week in the districts of some Republican holdouts while members of Congress are home. House Speaker John Boehner last week delayed a vote on a five-year $260 billion bill, which many members of his party opposed.

“This is an end run around conservative organizations who are opposed to the bill, by going to the constituents of these lawmakers directly and making an appeal that it will help the infrastructure in their district,” Ron Bonjean, a Republican political strategist who isn’t involved in the effort, said in a phone interview. Bonjean is a partner in Singer Bonjean Strategies, a Washington-based public affairs firm.

Some members from districts reliant on public transportation oppose the House bill’s proposed end to guaranteed transit funding from gasoline-tax revenue, while others object to its cost. Debate on the Democrat-controlled Senate’s two-year $109 billion version has bogged down over efforts to offer amendments unrelated to transportation.

‘Not Perfect’

The most recent extension of transportation funding expires March 31, and the Congressional Budget Office has said the Highway Trust Fund, which pays for road and transit projects, may be unable to meet its obligations on highway and bridge projects as soon as October. Gasoline-tax revenue going into the trust fund has declined as fuel efficiency of cars has improved and Americans drive less because of higher gas prices, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“These bills might not be perfect but we’ve got to keep them moving,” Janet Kavinoky, executive director of congressional and public affairs for the Washington-based Chamber, said in a phone interview.

If Congress waits, she said, “we just end up in a series of never-ending extensions.”

Authorization for the last multiyear transportation funding bill ran out in 2009. Programs have operated on a series of short-term extensions since then, making it difficult for state and local governments and contractors to make long-term plans.

Images of Reagan

The Chamber’s Americans for Transportation Mobility coalition, which includes business and transportation organizations, is taking the lead with its “Make Transportation Job One” lobbying campaign. Kavinoky is the coalition’s vice president.

The $500,000 effort began Feb. 12 and will continue through Feb. 28, Bobby Maldonado, a spokesman for the Chamber, said. It started with cable television and radio ads in the Washington area that ran Feb. 12 and Feb. 13, he said.

The ads, which feature former President Ronald Reagan extolling the benefits of transportation investment, began airing in Wyoming, Idaho, Tennessee, South Carolina, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Arkansas on Feb. 20. They’ll continue through Feb. 24, Maldonado said in an e-mail.

While the ads are running, coalition representatives are holding media events with local chambers of commerce and business groups “to heighten the voice of the business community and express our desire to see a surface transportation bill,” Maldonado said by phone.

Tea-Party ‘Bastions’

Those events are scheduled for Dayton, Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio; Louisville and Fort Mitchell, Kentucky; Houma, Louisiana; Mobile, Alabama; Atlanta; Topeka, Kansas; Omaha, Nebraska; Boise, Idaho; High Point, North Carolina; and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Maldonado said. They are scheduled through Feb. 24.

“They’re going after bastions of the Tea Party,” John Feehery, a Republican strategist, said by phone, referring to the movement that favors less regulation and government spending.

“They’re trying to win the intellectual argument that you need to have investment in infrastructure,” said Feehery, president of Quinn Gillespie Communications in Washington.

The campaign will close with another round of radio spots in Washington on Feb. 28 as Congress returns, the Chamber’s Maldonado said. It also includes online ads targeted at Washington readers running through March 2, he said.

‘Wavering’ Republicans

Some groups that belong to Americans for Transportation Mobility are doing their own advertising and events in addition to participating in the coalition’s media blitz.

Associated General Contractors of America is spending $20,000 on ads in the Weekly Standard and the National Review, opinion journals with conservative audiences, to urge support for the House bill, Brian Turmail, spokesman for the construction industry trade group, said by phone.

“We’re trying to reinforce, especially among Republican members that might be wavering, the need to get a bill done and why it’s important to the economy and in keeping with their ideology,” Turmail said.

The Arlington, Virginia-based contractors’ group has had media events in Fort Myers, Florida; Syracuse, New York; and Atlanta, and plans more events in Kentucky, Georgia, Wyoming, New York, Louisiana, Tennessee, Utah, Arizona and Wisconsin, he said.

Construction Unemployment

“Our message on these events is ‘here’s how much construction unemployment has declined in this metro area and one of the ways you can help do something about that is passing a surface transportation bill’,” Turmail said.

The American Road and Transportation Builders Association, which is also part of the Chamber-led coalition, is pushing its members to meet with their elected representatives or senior staff to press the case to move forward, group president Pete Ruane said by phone. ARTBA is the Washington-based group for transportation design and construction firms such as Caterpillar Inc. and Martin Marietta Materials Inc.

In six months, member companies may have to fire “thousands and thousands of people” if Congress fails to act, Ruane said. “That’s something I don’t think any of these people want in their districts.”

The House bill is H.R. 7. The Senate bill is S. 1813.

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