President Obama addressed the nations' governors at the White House this morning, urging them to continue to invest in infrastructure despite several high-profile instances of newly-elected governors abandoning federal plans for high-speed rail.
Obama -- without singling out any particular states -- said that some projects have become controversial as a result of "partisan politics." "We don't have third-rate airports and third-rate bridges and third-rate highways," Obama told the governors. "That's not who we are. We shouldn't start going down that path." Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich -- all newly elected Republicans -- have rejected a combined $3.6 billion in federal funds for commuter rail projects in recent months. Those governors had argued that even with the federal aid, their states might have been on the hook for billions if the projects weren't successful. Those decisions undermined the White House's agenda, which includes passenger rail as a high priority. In his proposed budget, Obama called for $8 billion in 2012 and $53 billion over six years for passenger rail projects. The president's goal is to provide 80 percent of Americans which access to high-speed passenger rail systems in the next 25 years. Obama said it "makes no sense" to give up on infrastructure projects, and they are key to helping the country remain competitive. The country's governors are in Washington for the winter meeting of the National Governors Association. On Saturday and Sunday they hosted meetings to discuss issues like education, job creation and homeland security. This morning, they gathered at the White House to meet with the president and also hear remarks from Vice President Joe Biden. Obama also made a not-so-subtle reference this morning to the ongoing unrest in Wisconsin, where Walker is seeking to repeal collective bargaining rights from unionized teachers and increase their contributions to pensions and health care premiums. "I don't think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated and vilified or their rights are infringed upon," Obama said. "I believe that everyone should be at the table, and the concept of shared sacrifice should prevail," he continued. Obama didn't mention Wisconsin by name, but he has previously expressed opposition to Walker's handling of the situation. Walker did not visit Washington for the conference. The president also addressed the health care reform law, which many Republican governors oppose. During a roundtable discussion Sunday, several Republican governors expressed their frustration with the law and argued that it doesn't give states enough flexibility. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, for example, said Sunday the federal government won't allow his state to continue using its own high-risk patient pool, which had 3,600 members, and instead insists upon establishing its own pool that serves just 58 people. "The idea that the federal government has got to force us to create a new risk pool -- that's not the kind of flexibility we're looking for," Barbour said. But Obama highlighted an often-overlooked part of the law that does allow states greater flexibility, starting in 2017, but only if they can provide the same level of affordable care. Pending legislation could move that date up to 2014. "I think that that's a reasonable proposal," Obama said. The president also called on the governors to name a bipartisan group to work with Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius on ways to lower health care costs, given ballooning size of Medicaid and Medicare. The National Governors Association already has its own Health and Human Services Committee -- chaired by Wisconsin's Walker. Obama said he will be open to considering any good ideas, but, he added, "I am not open to re-fighting the battles of the last two yeas."