GRANITE CITY – Insisting the five-year-old federal stimulus package staved off a U.S. depression, Vice President Joe Biden toured the mucky site of a future Mississippi River harbor near an Illinois steel town and pressed for continued infrastructure spending he says has helped define the nation.
Biden, speaking to hundreds of gatherers in a sprawling port's unheated warehouse, stopped short of espousing any follow-up to the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act he called vital in softening the U.S. recession since President Barack Obama signed the measure in 2009.
Any such big-money effort likely would face long odds of advancing this year in the building to midterm Congressional elections, with Republicans who long have panned the stimulus spending as a wasteful failure publicly reticent about encore legislation.
Biden still played the pitchman, telling the lunchtime crowd at America's Central Port in Granite City northeast of St. Louis that improving the nation's roads, bridges and inland river infrastructure should be a priority even when economic times aren't shaky.
"The answers to our problems are not that complex. Do whatever has to be done to rebuild this skeleton of this country," the Delaware Democrat said during the event also attended by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Foxx's predecessor and former Illinois congressman Ray LaHood, and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.
"Build, build, build the most modern infrastructure in the history of the world, and the world will come to us," he added.
In what at times resembled a high school history lecture, Biden detailed the nation's rich past in public works projects, from the carving out of the Erie Canal to construction of the transcontinental railroad, the Brooklyn Bridge and the nation's interstate highway system.
Biden touted the unfolding construction of the nearby harbor, where goods within perhaps a year will be transferred between barges, trucks and rail cars – an effort Biden and the port's overseers say wouldn't be happening without $14.5 million the project got from the stimulus measure.
While Biden labeled the Recovery Act a "bold" move by Obama and the most successful economic recovery program since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, critics aren't buying it.
The Illinois Republican Party on Wednesday suggested Biden's "victory lap" on the five-year anniversary of the 2009 stimulus plan was disingenuous, saying the state's unemployment rate of 8.6 percent is virtually unchanged since the stimulus measure took effect.
"If the vice president is trying to claim that the Democrats are good for jobs, he could hardly pick a worse state than Illinois for proof," Andrew Welhouse, the Illinois GOP's spokesman, said in a statement. "A visit and a speech from the vice president won't fix Illinois's jobs climate."
U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, a Republican in the nearby 15th Congressional District, applauded the port's expansion but said "the stimulus as a whole was a failure."
"What the stimulus did include was a lot of waste," Shimkus said.