MIAMI With communities in the Midwest still under water, Democrat Barack Obama on Saturday criticized Republican John McCain for opposing federal spending on flood prevention programs and opened a new debate in the White House race.
McCain's campaign said Obama was engaging in typical political attacks that the Democrat rejects in his speeches and confusing the facts.
Both candidates have visited the flood zones in the past two weeks, since tornadoes hit and heavy rains sent rivers surging over their banks. At least 24 people were killed, the majority in Iowa.
Obama, an Illinois senator, canceled a visit to eastern Iowa last week at the request of state officials and instead went to fill sandbags in Quincy, Ill. McCain, an Arizona senator, toured flood damage in Iowa Thursday.
"I know that Sen. McCain felt as strongly as I did," Obama said, "feeling enormous sympathy for the victims of the recent flooding. I'm sure they appreciated the sentiment, but they probably would have appreciated it even more if Sen. McCain hadn't opposed legislation to fund levees and flood control programs, which he considers pork."
The bill that McCain opposed spent $23 billion on water projects. It passed Congress overwhelmingly and was vetoed by President Bush because he said it spent too much on lawmaker's pet projects. Congress voted to override the veto, the first time of Bush's presidency.
The bill funded hundreds of projects such as dams, sewage plants and beach restoration that are important to local communities and their representatives. It also included money for the hurricane-hit Gulf Coast and for Florida Everglades restoration efforts.
McCain's campaign said Obama opposed an amendment that McCain co-sponsored to prioritize flood control spending. The bipartisan amendment, which failed overwhelmingly on a 69-22 vote, would have made sure "lifesaving levees like those that so tragically failed in Iowa and Missouri are given the highest priority and fixed first," said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.
"It is beyond the pale that Barack Obama would attack John McCain for actually trying to fix the problem and change the way Washington works," Bounds said. "Barack Obama's willingness to continue the status quo pork-barrel politics in Washington, and then engage in political attacks that entirely disregard the facts, once again fundamentally shows that he's nothing more than a typical politician."
Obama's criticism of McCain came in a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He told the city leaders that he would be their partner and appoint the first White House Director of Urban Policy to help them cut through federal bureaucracies. The promise sparked a standing ovation.
He promised money for police, higher-paid teachers, transit, housing and broadband Internet. He said he would create jobs by rebuilding roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects. "That will be the cause of my presidency," he said.
And he announced a new program to offer matching grants that encourage businesses, government and university leaders to collaborate on regional economic clusters, such as the North Carolina Research Triangle Park and Nashville's entertainment cluster. The campaign said the proposal would cost $200 million a year and would be funded by improving government efficiency.