President Barack Obama will appear at the run-down Brent Spence bridge in Cincinnati on Thursday to try to sell his $447 billion jobs bill, but first he'll be hearing a lot about another Ohio River bridge in crisis.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Gov. Steve Beshear will be meeting beforehand with Obama to discuss the Sherman Minton Bridge, whose two-week shutdown because of structural flaws is paralyzing Louisville and Southern Indiana.
The fact that Beshear did not appear earlier this year at Obama's only public visit to Kentucky since taking office provoked political tongue-wagging, and there's plenty of maneuvering over Obama's jobs bill. But for people in Louisville, the urgency of the bridge crisis trumps political considerations.
"This is not a Republican or Democratic issue," said Fischer spokesman Chris Poynter. "This is a real life issue every day, with people getting up at 3 a.m. to get to work, and businesses that are being harmed because they can't get their goods in and out of Louisville."
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U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, said Wednesday night he would travel on Air Force One with Obama to evaluate the bridge.
Paul said he would discuss with the president a plan to prioritize critical infrastructure needs. Paul said his bill would create an emergency bridge fund. Money for this fund, he said, would come from money previously set aside for "unnecessary projects like turtle tunnels, squirrel sanctuaries, movie theaters and flower beds."
On Saturday, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and U.S. Rep. Todd Young, R-Ind., stood with U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., and pledged to find a way to reopen the bridge.
Yarmuth said he and Young were working on legislation that would make the Sherman Minton Bridge eligible for federal emergency money.
Also, White House officials have told Fischer that some of the jobs bill funding might be available for the Sherman Minton Bridge, if the bill is passed by Congress, Poynter said.
Fischer met with top Obama advisers in Washington earlier this week, and arranged to meet with the president before his speech Thursday.
"The dilemma we're facing is that there is no fund in the federal government that is specific for a catastrophic situation like this," Poynter said. "There is money available if a bridge collapses but no pot of money for a bridge that has serious flaws."
McConnell, the Senate minority leader, has signaled his opposition to Obama's jobs bill.
He said he had discussed the Sherman Minton Bridge with Fischer and looked forward to continuing that discussion. The solution will depend on the extent of the problems, such as whether the bridge has to be replaced or can be repaired, said McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer.
As for Obama's trip to the Brent Spence Bridge, which Obama mentioned in his speech to Congress when introducing his American Jobs Act earlier this month, McConnell said he viewed it as a distraction.
"President Obama may think the best way to distract people from the challenges we face is to stand near a bridge in a swing state and pit one group of Americans against another, and hope his critics look bad if they don't go along with him," McConnell said in a statement. "But I don't think he's fooling anybody."
Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson said Beshear also would talk to Obama about other issues facing Kentucky families.
Obama is widely unpopular in Kentucky, which could become an issue for Beshear in the final months before the Nov. 8 gubernatorial election.
Beshear got plenty of criticism from his rivals — state Senate President David Williams and Lexington lawyer Gatewood Galbraith — on Oaks Day in May when he did not appear with Obama at Fort Campbell to congratulate the soldiers who killed Osama bin Laden.
Although Beshear was never invited to the event, he said a scheduling conflict, not the lack of an invitation, prevented him from going to Fort Campbell.