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Oberstar pushes huge jobs plan

When President-elect Barack Obama announced plans last month for a huge job creation effort by the federal government, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar was already there.

Oberstar is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has readied legislation to make $45 billion available to states for road, bridge, aviation, maritime and water-sewer projects. His plan would allow states to pick the projects to be funded without congressional earmarks. In turn, Washington would demand that the projects already have all necessary permits and engineering completed and that bidding and construction begin within 90-120 days.

"We have almost 11 percent unemployment in the building trades right now," Oberstar told the News Tribune on Monday in advance of today's news conference on the initiative in Duluth. "Nationally, that's nearly 1 million people we need to put to work."

As an example, Oberstar said 7,000 jobs could be created in the Gopher State alone, where the Minnesota Department of Transportation has $218 million in road and bridge projects ready to go, with all the plans, permits and engineering completed. But there's no money to pay the construction companies to start work. He said a stimulus package could pay for those projects.

But some Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have balked at increasing the federal budget deficit in the name of spurring the economy. A McConnell spokesman said there are "very difficult questions" about where the money would come from and where and how quickly it would be spent, as well as how it would affect the deficit, Congress Daily reported.

Whatever bill passes the House still must clear the Senate which, depending on a runoff election in Georgia and the ongoing recount in Minnesota, may not see Democrats with a filibuster-proof majority. That means the jobs package will need to be negotiated with Republicans for the bill to pass.

At a Nov. 24 news conference in Chicago, Obama said he wants Congress to pass a jobs program after it returns to work Jan. 6. Obama wants the legislation aimed at creating and saving 2.5 million jobs over the next two years.

With 6.5 percent unemployment nationally in October and a full-blown recession now under way for 12 months, Democrats say action is needed.

"If we do not act swiftly and boldly, most experts believe that we could lose millions of jobs next year," Obama said in announcing his intentions. He wants to do it by "rebuilding our infrastructure, our roads, our bridges, modernizing our schools and creating the clean energy infrastructure of the 21st century."

Oberstar will be joined in the effort by U.S. Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee which ultimately will decide any spending bill. Obey already is working on the legislation.

Ellis Brachman, Obey's spokesman, noted the House passed a major jobs bill in September that included $56 billion for job training and infrastructure improvements but that the Senate never took action.

"Economists agree that the need is even greater now," Brachman said. "So the bill that's going to come out now is going to be much bigger, no doubt."