Construction-Jobs Loss Reignites Debate on Highway Bill

The loss of 28,000 construction jobs in May, the sector’s worst drop in two years, reignited a debate in Congress about stalled legislation to extend federal highway construction and transportation programs set to expire June 30.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi demanded that Speaker John Boehner allow a vote in the Republican-controlled House on a two-year, $109 billion measure passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate on a 74-22 bipartisan vote.

Congress has approved a series of short-term extensions of federal highway and transportation programs, and the latest ends June 30. House Republicans are demanding a provision to allow construction of the Keystone XL pipeline linking Canadian oil fields to Gulf Coast refineries.

Republicans should “stop stalling on the transportation bill, create jobs now, bring it to the floor,” Pelosi of California told reporters in Washington today. The “shameful” loss of construction jobs last month makes it “urgent for our country to build our infrastructure,” she said.

The 28,000 drop in construction jobs last month is the largest in two years, according to an analysis by the Associated General Contractors of America. The trade group also said a 1.4 percent drop in public construction spending in April constrained overall construction growth that month to 0.3 percent.

Pelosi and second-ranking House Democrat Steny Hoyer of Maryland called a press conference after Boehner and House Republican leaders lambasted President Barack Obama’s economic record.

April’s Gain

The Republicans cited the weak May employment numbers as further evidence that the president’s policies failed to spur the job growth. The Labor Department reported that the number of jobs grew by 69,000 last month, less than the most pessimistic forecast and smaller than April’s revised gain of 77,000.

Boehner of Ohio made an election-year plug for Republican proposals to cut spending, reduce regulation and avoid a year-end tax increase when Bush-era tax cuts expire.

“Elections have consequences and we believe that the policies that we have advocated over the last three and a half years would have our economy in a much better place than it is today,” the speaker told reporters.

Boehner said passing an extension of federal transportation programs “would put more Americans back to work.” Republicans are demanding inclusion of the Keystone pipeline provision because the project “would create nearly 20,000 jobs immediately,” he said.

Permit Rejected

Earlier this year, Obama rejected TransCanada Corp.’s permit application to build the pipeline, citing environmental concerns in Nebraska. The company has reapplied and Nebraska officials are reviewing the rerouted pipeline’s potential impact on an environmentally sensitive region.

Hoyer said that even though many senators support the pipeline, “it did not hold them up from passing” the highway bill.

Pennsylvania Republican Bill Shuster said yesterday that Senate Democratic negotiators have been “a brick wall” when Republicans have demanded their provisions.

Unless a deal is reached by June 30, Shuster said Congress would consider another short-term extension. “I don’t think anyone wants to see a halt to construction across the country,” he said.

Texas Representative Pete Sessions, chairman of the House Republican campaign effort, said Democratic claims that Republicans were obstructing the highway bill to hurt Obama’s re-election chances were “hogwash.”

Sessions said Boehner is working toward an agreement on the highway legislation because he “understands how important transportation infrastructure is on a long-term basis.”

The bill is S. 1813.

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