WASHINGTON — There’s no free ride in politics — but there often is a debate about who pays.
President Barack Obama’s bus trip this week through North Carolina and Virginia is generating questions about whether it’s just part of the job, and thus something that should be billed to taxpayers — or is instead a campaign-style tour meant to generate votes next year in two states key to his re-election, and thus something his campaign should pay for.
Officially, Obama is traveling through the two states Monday through Wednesday to rally support for his proposed $447 billion jobs bill. He flew Air Force One to Asheville, N.C., on Monday, and will roll north through the state into Virginia on the sleek armored black bus bought by the Secret Service earlier this year.
But he’s pitching a bill that the Senate’s already set aside, and it’s got zero chance of passing Congress whole, though parts of it may make it.
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More in play are the two 2012 election-battleground states he’s visiting. He won both in 2008, but polls suggest that he faces an uphill climb in each this time.
"He has the right and privilege to do that," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "I think the question might be, 'Is that appropriate on the taxpayer's dime' since it is clearly campaigning."
Republicans in North Carolina are blunter.
“This is a political campaign,” said Rob Lockwood, a spokesman for the North Carolina Republican Party. “We believe his campaign should pay for this.”
North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes said the trip — plus others in the campaign for the jobs bill — would cost taxpayers “tens of millions of dollars.”
That estimate was likely an exaggeration.
Traditionally, presidents and their campaigns or political operations pay very little for his travel. Their campaigns do pay when renting space for a purely political event, such as a fund-raising dinner or a re-election rally. The campaign also is expected to reimburse the government for at least some share of airfare when part of a trip is purely political.
Yet that is based on commercial airline fares, not the cost of maintaining and flying Air Force One. A 2006 report to Congress found that the George W. Bush campaign and Republicans paid for just 2.3 percent of the cost of Air Force One on political trips, and just 5.7 percent of the cost of Air Force Two, the vice president’s plane.
A 60-day campaign by President Bush and his administration in 2005 to sell an overhaul of Social Security cost a total of $2.6 million, according to a 2007 study by the Congress’s Government Accountability Office.
That included $1.6 million for staging events; $437,000 for the use of Air Force One and Air Force Two; and $369,000 for travel by others in the executive office of the president.
That price tag for 228 events — 40 of them featuring the president and seven featuring the vice president — did not include salaries, which have to be paid anyway, or Secret Service costs, which are kept confidential.
Whether $2 million or tens of millions, the cost of such presidential campaigning often kicks off a partisan debate about whether the government or the president’s campaign should pay.
In this case, the White House argued that it is part of the president’s job to travel the country selling a legislative proposal to the public.
"There are people in Washington, D.C., and all across the country who are eager to ascribe political motivations to everything the president does," said Josh Earnest, the White House deputy press secretary. “But an important part of his job is to travel out of Washington, to talk to people about the economy and how his economic policies are affecting them."
What some people in Washington think about the costs of presidential travel seems to depend at times on which political party holds the presidency.
When Bush, a Republican, traveled to pitch his Social Security plan, at least one prominent Democrat thought that was an “extravagant” waste of taxpayer money.
"Campaign-style events cost tens of thousands to stage,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., then the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “And millions of taxpayer dollars were spent to try to convince the American people to support a flawed and unworkable proposal.”
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