By Jack Brammer and Kelsey Sheridan
CINCINNATI — Standing before an aging bridge that links the home turf of top Republicans in Congress, President Barack Obama touted his $447 billion jobs bill Thursday as a way to help repair the nation’s infrastructure.
Obama called out by name Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as he spoke near the Brent Spence Bridge that carries I-75 and I-71 over the Ohio River.
“Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge,” Obama said. “Help us rebuild America. Help us put this country back to work. Pass this jobs bill right away.”
It amounted to one of Obama’s most direct and defiant challenges to leaders of the opposition party. And the incursion into the Republicans’ territory illustrated a new White House aggression and a desire by the president’s advisers to distinguish him from Republicans and to get them to share some of the blame for the struggling economy.
Obama joked that it was “just coincidental” that he came to the bridge in the backyards of McConnell and Boehner.
He noted that one of four bridges in Boehner’s district is substandard and that McConnell has called for better infrastructure, but they have refused to endorse his plan.
McConnell made a floor speech on Thursday that dismissed Obama’s trip as “political theater” and decried Obama’s jobs bill as a second stimulus package that would be no more successful than the first.
“If a bridge needs fixing, by all means, let’s fix it,” McConnell said. “But don’t tell us we need to pass a half a trillion dollar stimulus bill and accept job-killing tax hikes to do it.”
During his speech, Obama recalled that McConnell has said his “No. 1 priority” is to make sure Obama is not re-elected next year. That election is 14 months away and there will be plenty of time to “tangle,” Obama said, adding that many Americans want to see jobs created now.
The president also contended that his bill will put teachers back to work and close unfair tax loopholes.
Speaking of the Brent Spence Bridge, Obama said the 48-year-old structure is “functionally obsolete.”
Local leaders have worked for more than 10 years to replace the Brent Spence Bridge. The work has a $2.4 billion price tag because it will involve a 7.8-mile stretch of I-75 in the two states. It is a linchpin along the nation’s busiest freight corridor. About 4 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product — or about $400 billion — travels across the bridge each year.
But it was designed to carry 80,000 vehicles a day. Today, it carries about 170,000, Obama said.
The bridge is scheduled to be repaired anyway starting in 2015, although White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president’s job bill could speed up that timeline.
Obama also mentioned a major bridge problem in Louisville that has caused monumental traffic headaches. The Sherman Minton Bridge in Louisville was recently closed due to structural problems.
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer met privately with Obama at the international airport in northern Kentucky about the Louisville bridge before Obama arrived in Cincinnati.
In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Beshear said he asked Obama to make Sherman Minton a priority.
“I called on the President to expedite funding for repairs to keep our families working, and reminded him that deteriorating infrastructure is just one more example of what happens when Washington keeps playing partisan games and ignores the real needs of citizens,” Beshear said. “We cannot afford to keep delaying repairs that stymie economic growth.”
On Friday afternoon, Beshear will host U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez on a tour of the Sherman Minton Bridge.
With Obama in Cincinnati were Fischer, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Bowling Green and LaHood.
Fischer said he had a 3-minute meeting with Obama and that the federal government wants specifics about the bridge problem in Kentucky’s largest city before committing any money to it.
Paul and Yarmuth flew on Air Force One with the president from Washington. Paul said he wants to allocate federal dollars from “optional projects such as landscaping, scenic beautification and transportation museums” to an emergency fund to repair vital interstate transportation projects like the Sherman Minton and Brent Spence bridges.
Throughout some of Obama’s 21-minute speech in Cincinnati, the crowd chanted, “Pass that bill.” It booed Obama when he introduced Paul, but Obama quieted them by saying “Rand is going to be supporting bridges.”
Steve Huffman, a 40-year-old, laid-off steelworker with the Service Employees International Union, said he applauded Obama’s efforts to create jobs.
“That’s why I’m here today,” said Huffman, who noted that his wife has two jobs to try to support them and their two daughters.
The trip to Kentucky was the second for Obama since he became president. He visited soldiers at Fort Campbell in May.
Herald-Leader reporter Linda Blackford and The Associated Press contributed to this report.