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Obama Talks Gas Tax And Visas With Business Leaders

MELISSA BLOCK: If Congress took some common sense steps the U.S. economy could be growing faster. That was the message President Obama had today for leaders of some of the nation's largest companies. The president also planned to bring that up in a meeting with the soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader. NPR's Scott Horsley reports on how it went with the business leaders.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Obama told the Business Roundtable - a group of corporate CEOs - that the United States is outpacing economic growth in Europe, Japan and most other developed countries. Private employers have added more than 10.5 million jobs since the trough of the recession. And forecasters expect to boost that number by another 200,000-plus on Friday, when the Labor Department reports on November's hiring. Even though the jobless rate's now fallen below 6 percent, though, many workers are not sharing in the economic recovery. Wages are barely keeping up with inflation. And Obama says that's contributing to widespread discontent.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And one thing I'd like to work with the BRT on is to ask some tricky questions, but important questions about how we can make sure that prosperity is broad-based.

HORSLEY: Obama highlighted several ways the government could help by overhauling the tax code, investing in public works and signing new trade agreements. But all those proposals have been kicking around Washington for years with little to show for it. Obama says the only way to break the political logjam is to make a convincing case to middle-class voters that such moves are in their pocketbook interests.


OBAMA: If people continue to feel like Democrats are looking after poor folks and Republicans are looking after rich folks and nobody's looking after me, then we don't get a lot of stuff done.

HORSLEY: The gray-suited audience was respectful, if not particularly friendly. A utility executive quizzed the president about his new power plant regulations. A high-tech CEO asked about prospects for immigration reform and additional visas for high-skilled workers. And Fred Smith, who oversees a fleet of more than 47,000 delivery trucks as chairman of FedEx, challenged Obama on highway funding.

The federal Highway Trust Fund almost went broke last summer before Congress patched it with a temporary budget gimmick. Smith asked about a pair of bills that would raise the gasoline tax to ensure a more reliable source of transportation funding.


FRED SMITH: Why not, before the Congress goes home for December, just pass a bill? I would think that would be a great opportunity for you and the new Congress to show some bipartisan success here.

HORSLEY: The federal gas tax of 18 cents a gallon has not increased in more than 20 years. Obama says there's a political reason for that. The White House has never favored a hike in the gas tax, even though gasoline prices have now tumbled nearly 50 cents a gallon from this time last year.


OBAMA: In fairness to members of Congress, votes on gas tax are really tough.

HORSLEY: Obama said he would consult with congressional leaders to see if there's any appetite for raising the tax. First though, lawmakers face a more pressing task of passing a spending bill to keep the government open beyond next Thursday. One CEO told the president keeping the government's lights on is important to her business. Obama interjected me too. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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