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Miami port dredging not in Obama budget plans

WASHINGTON — An aggressive effort to secure federal funding to dredge the port of Miami suffered a significant setback Monday when President Barack Obama declined to put aside money for it.

Local officials and the state’s South Florida congressional delegation had hoped to secure $75 million in the president’s 2012 budget proposal to dredge the port to 50 feet to accommodate bigger cargo ships. But the administration said the project didn’t land high enough on its priority list, said Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami.

The budget plan also cuts by $300 million – or 7.5 percent -- the popular Community Development Block grants that many cities, including Miami, use for helping the poor.

Advocates for the Everglades, though, hailed the level of commitment toward restoration efforts, with Everglades Foundation chief executive officer Kirk Fordham saying the administration “understands that Everglades restoration is a priority to sustain the water supply, create jobs and provide myriad economic benefits.

“This funding, along with money targeted to the Department of Interior budget ,will ensure that construction projects already underway continue and do not result in layoffs or project delays,” Fordham said.

Port director Bill Johnson -- who had lobbied the White House for months, saying the project could bring 33,000 jobs to South Florida -- said he was “obviously disappointed, but undeterred.” He said he didn’t think that any East Coast ports that had sought construction dollars for dredging had received them.

“No one would expect us to give up and we won't," he said. The port needs the money to deepen the port by 2014, when large vessels begin using the Panama Canal.

Wilson, who championed the project, said she has asked the administration to identify alternative sources for the cash.

“We can’t afford to give up, there’s too many jobs at stake, even if we have to have a huge fund raiser,” Wilson said. “We have to find the money.”

Administration officials in phone calls with reporters defended the spending decisions. White House Senior Advisor David Plouffe said Obama had cut programs he cares about, but “is deadly serious about getting this country on a sustainable fiscal path."

Johnson says he'll go back to Congress to plead the port's case, but that may prove an uphill battle: Lawmakers are spurning earmarks and the GOP-led House Tuesday will begin looking at cutting $58 billion in spending for the rest of this year. Those cuts include programs that help the poor with housing, job training, community health centers and legal services.

And Republicans pledged Monday to go deeper than Obama is spending cuts, labeling his budget proposal too timid.

"The President’s budget falls far short of tackling our national debt in a serious way," said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. "Although we face a $1.6 trillion deficit and a staggering national debt that exceeds $14 trillion, the President’s proposal would add $7.2 trillion of new debt over the next 10 years."

The National Republican Senatorial Committee criticized the budget and questioned whether Florida Sen. Bill Nelson – whom the committee is targeting for relection – would support the measure. Nelson called it “a step in the right direction.”

“I’m tired of all the critics that keep blasting away at budgets when in fact they offer no real solution and really haven’t done any cutting themselves,” Nelson said. “At least the president’s budget is a step in the right direction in trying to get this country turned around, to really do something about lowering the deficit and cutting all of this wasteful spending.”