In a brief interview Wednesday, just above the Senate chamber, Sen. John Thune (R-SD) rejected President Obama’s State of the Union call for broad infrastructure upgrades, citing his opposition to new spending projects and claiming that existing mechanisms for funding current transportation infrastructure projects are basically adequate.
“I understand the goal, but right now this is going to be — anytime you talk about ‘investment’ it means new spending,” Thune told me. “When you talk about new spending at a time when we’ve got this financial picture, I don’t know how he’s going to accomplish all the things that he wants to get done, and then still talk about a five-year freeze on discretionary spending. You can’t do it all.”
Obama called in his speech for upgrades to existing infrastructure and for new projects, including one to dramatically expand high-speed rail access.
“We have a mechanism by which we deal with infrastructure in this country,” Thune said. “We have a highway trust fund and it’s worked very well for a long time. We finance it with a gas tax. We need a new highway authorization — I wouldn’t argue that.”
The highway trust fund hasn’t always worked very well. In 2008, it ran out of money, and required an $8 billion cash infusion from Congress. It’s insolvency stems in large part from the fact that its per capita revenue from the gas tax decreases as auto efficiency climbs.
Obama separately called for broader development — a challenge Thune says Congress will reject.
“I think that new types of — some of the things that he’s talking about doing — are going to require massive investments, and I think that’s going to be very difficult to accomplish — I don’t know how he’s going to do it with the fiscal picture that we’re facing today,” he said. “If he’s got ideas about massive new quote investments, that’s code for new spending and I think that’s going to be a very hard sell here.”
Thune is considering challenging Obama for the presidency in 2012. Though he’s made no decision, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has in recent months been encouraging him to run. “[H]e’s a very sharp, capable individual, [and has] good leadership qualities which I see on display every week in the Senate. I’m a big John Thune fan,” McConnell said at a breakfast roundtable with Washington insiders on Tuesday.
After a Republican leadership press conference in the Capitol, Thune responded.
“I’m flattered, the leader’s been very generous with his comments and support,” Thune told reporters. “I appreciate [it, but] I haven’t come to any final conclusions yet.”