President Joe Biden toured the Port of Baltimore Wednesday and touted the passage of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that Democrats hope will allow his administration to regain momentum even as a second signature measure remains stalled in a divided Congress.
Biden, in his second visit to the Democratic Party-friendly city in three weeks, characterized the legislation as a jobs-and-recovery act critical to helping the nation push past the pandemic’s economic effects.
“This is a once-in-a-generation investment,” said the president, speaking on a makeshift stage set up along the water at Dundalk Marine Terminal as the sun began to set.
In the background loomed giant cranes used to lift containers off cargo ships at the adjacent Seagirt Marine Terminal. Nearby truck-sized containers were draped with red, white and blue bunting.
Biden called the infrastructure bill a “monumental step.” But his speech seemed less of a victory lap than an opportunity to try to inform the nation about not just what is in the bill, but what it’s intended to do. He also pushed for passage of his $1.75 trillion Build Back Better package, which aims to expand health care, combat climate change, fund universal prekindergarten, and expand paid family and medical leave for workers.
The second bill is stuck in Congress as Democrats negotiate its scope and Republicans object to many of its priorities and to the size of corporate tax hikes needed to pay for it.
The infrastructure bill — which Biden plans to sign into law Monday — includes $17 billion to improve ports and entry points along the U.S. border.
The administration says the measure will help alleviate supply chain problems that have disrupted shipments of goods.
Biden noted that while unemployment is dropping and wages are increasing, many Americans still feel unsettled. Consumers are experiencing higher prices and lack of availability of products.
“Everything from a gallon of gas to a loaf of bread costs more,” he said.
Maryland will see an influx of billions of dollars from the infrastructure bill over the next five years for projects ranging from bridge replacement to public transit improvements to broadband internet expansion.
All of that work will create new jobs — particularly good-paying union jobs — the president said. Officials with logos of the International Longshoremen’s Association and International Brotherhood of Teamsters mingled in the small crowd watching Biden’s remarks.
Earlier, some of those workers joined Biden as he toured a warehouse-sized shed containing giant rolls of fiber paperboard made by a Finnish company, Metsä Board, used to make boxes.
“Well, I’ll tell you what: This is an incredible operation,” the president said as he approached a display of combines and tractors, examples of the machinery that is imported and exported through Baltimore.
Biden who wore a black mask, spoke with Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and members of Maryland’s Congressional delegation during the tour, noting that the port eventually will be able to handle more cargo, once the Howard Street Tunnel is expanded to accommodate trains with containers stacked two-high going to and from the port.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott praised the infrastructure bill and touted the Build Back Better proposal. Scott, a Democrat, called the president a friend and said of him: “Promises were made and more important, promises were kept.”
Biden said that the Build Back Better package will be “totally paid for” without tax increases on most Americans. He’ll do that by “making taxes work” for people earning more than $400,000.
“You should be able to be a millionaire, billionaire if you can, but pay your fair share,” Biden said.
Congressional Democrats have eagerly embraced the infrastructure package as proof that Biden can govern effectively even in a polarized Congress and nation.
“I do think the American people want a government that delivers,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, told reporters before Biden arrived. “This is important delivery.”
Biden’s approval rating has plummeted as his legislative priorities stalled in Congress and after the difficult withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Democrats suffered key losses in last week’s elections, including the governorship of Virginia, won by Republican Glenn Youngkin.
The Republican National Committee called Biden’s visit a “publicity stunt.”
“Marylanders are dealing with a supply chain crisis, lower wages thanks to inflation, and rising prices from the gas pump to the grocery store,” RNC spokeswoman Rachel Lee said in a statement. “Joe Biden visiting the Port of Baltimore ... fails to address any of the real problems he has created.”
The president addressed the disruptions in global supply chains that have left some shelves empty and caused Americans to pay more for many products. Ironically, he noted, many Americans have more money due to federal stimulus payments and a strengthening economy that they are unable to spend.
Biden said he recently spoke with executives from Walmart, Target, FedEx and UPS who have promised “the shelves will be stocked in stores this holiday.”
He praised the work of his port envoy, John D. Porcari, who previously was Maryland’s secretary of transportation. Representatives of railroads, shipping companies, labor unions, and state and local officials are cooperating, Biden said.
“Instead of pointing fingers, we’re starting to see folks working together,” Biden said.
The Port of Baltimore has not fully rebounded to pre-pandemic levels of cargo volume. Shortages of computer chips, for example, have slowed the shipments of automobiles, a key commodity that moves through Baltimore’s port. In September, about 59,000 tons of automobiles passed through Port of Baltimore, according to Maryland Port Administration data. It was 81,000 tons in September 2019.
On the container side through September this year, Seagirt has handled close to 780,000 so-called TEUs, a standard unit of measure for the truck-sized containers, which often come in 40- and 20-foot lengths. That’s up significantly from the fewer than 500,000 TEUs that passed through the port in the same period last year amid the pandemic, but still down from the 818,000 TEUs the port handled between January and September of 2019, according to Maryland Port Administration data.
But the Port of Baltimore has avoided the congestion that has plagued other, larger ports, such as Los Angeles.
Heavily-Democratic Baltimore has been friendly territory for Biden, who spent eight years as vice president and represented neighboring Delaware in the U.S. Senate.
This was Biden’s second trip to Baltimore in the past three weeks, after he participated in a CNN “town hall” Oct. 21 at Mount Vernon’s Center Stage.
Hogan was among the mostly Democratic group of political leaders who joined the president at the port.
“I was proud to support this bipartisan infrastructure bill,” the Republican governor said in opening remarks before Biden’s speech.
Hogan has taken credit for helping get the infrastructure bill passed. His political group, An America United, sent a fundraising solicitation this week saying that Hogan “helped CRAFT and PASS this effort to rebuild our infrastructure without raising taxes.”
Early in the infrastructure debate last spring, Hogan held a two-day summit with a bipartisan group of governors and members of Congress to discuss the issue. As negotiations wore on, Hogan wrote op-eds and did national interviews, urging lawmakers to set aside egos and side issues and pass a bill focused strictly on infrastructure.
Baltimore Sun reporter Christine Condon contributed to this report.