WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is pressing for passage of his full $447 billion jobs package in the face of certain congressional defeat while embracing more modest administrative remedies to the nation's sluggish economy and unwaveringly high unemployment.
Continuing his personal campaign for the legislation, Obama was traveling to Pittsburgh Tuesday, making a plea for support in a state crucial to his re-election hopes. At the same time, the Senate was scheduled to vote on whether to proceed to the legislation — a step that would require a 60-vote supermajority that was beyond reach.
Eager to demonstrate that his administration was nevertheless taking steps to ease the economic crunch, Obama planned to join his presidential jobs council of corporate and labor leaders in Pittsburgh as they unveiled a report calling for sweeping and urgent changes in government policies. The White House also was announcing steps to speed up environmental and other regulatory approvals for 14 public works projects across the country.
Decrying the human toll of the nation's economic and financial crisis, Obama's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness is laying out a series of policy overhauls sure to please and irritate Democratic and Republican partisans alike, from liberalized immigration and greater spending on infrastructure to less restrictive regulations and a more business-friendly tax system.
Topping the council's list is a plea for improvements in the nation's network of roads and bridges, for airport upgrades and modernized ports, and for updated electric grids, water and wastewater systems.
"If Washington can agree on anything, it should be this — and it should be now," the report states.
While in Pittsburgh, Obama will tour an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers training center. Later, Obama will travel to Orlando, Fla., where he will attend fundraising events for his presidential campaign and for the Democratic National Committee.
The 27-member jobs council is headed by General Electric Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt, and includes AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, AOL co-founder Steve Case and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.
The 50-page report carefully avoids taking a stand on Obama's $447 billion jobs package. Instead, it offers recommendations that are bound to meet resistance from one party or the other.
The president, however, will probably find comfort in the report's demand for new infrastructure. His jobs bill proposes spending $30 billion to modernize schools and $50 billion on road and bridge projects.
The council's report calls on Congress to reauthorize surface transportation legislation instead of simply approving temporary extensions. It proposes additional ways of leveraging private sector investment in public works projects, including a national infrastructure bank that would be seeded with public money to attract private money — a proposal that has bipartisan support and is also in Obama's job's bill.
To speed up projects, the council has recommended a streamlined approval process that prevents delays over environmental reviews or other permits.
As a start, the Obama administration on Monday announced 14 major public works projects that will receive accelerated environmental and permit reviews, with a goal of completing federal review within 18 months. The projects include replacement of the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River in New York and a wind generation project in California's San Bernardino National Forest.
The new review process incorporates the council's recommendations, but it's also a nod to Republicans and the construction industry. Both have long complained about government bureaucratic delays and regulatory red tape.
Last June, Obama conceded that even public works projects financed by his 2009 economic stimulus faced permitting delays. "Shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected," he said.
The projects listed by the administration include a highway connector in Provo, Utah; a 14-mile rail transit line in and around Baltimore; an Interstate 95 bridge over the Merrimack River in Massachusetts; a light rail project extension near Los Angeles International Airport; and a series of pending oil and gas applications for wells and pipelines in the Dakota Prairie and Little Missouri National Grasslands in North and South Dakota.
Another focus of the jobs council is increasing entrepreneurship by reducing regulations and providing incentives for private firms and startups to go public. It calls for eliminating capital gains taxes on investments of $25 million or less in a privately held company so long as that investment is held for at least five years. And it encourages new graduates to take entrepreneurial risks by creating a student loan repayment plan based on income.
It also steps into the politically charged debate over immigration. It proposes eased immigration rules for high-skilled foreigners, including automatic work permits or provisional visas to all foreign students after they earn science, technology, engineering or math degrees from U.S. colleges or universities.
"We are sympathetic to the political sensitivities around the topic of immigration reform," the council report states. "But when it comes to driving job creation and increasing American competitiveness, separating the highly skilled worker component is critical. We therefore call upon Congress to pass reforms aimed directly at allowing the most promising foreign-born entrepreneurs to remain in or relocate to the United States."
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