With U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann heavily favored in Tennessee's 3rd District congressional race, some prominent politicos already are pondering the freshman Republican's second term.
To his eight-term predecessor, Fleischmann's re-election is "obvious," but former Rep. Zach Wamp also says his fellow Republican's next two years hinge on solving the district's biggest infrastructure puzzle -- the Chickamauga lock.
In an interview, Wamp praised Fleischmann for making the 72-year-old lock "an important priority," but said he hopes his successor "exerts more leadership" in maintaining the old lock and finishing a partially completed replacement.
"If you don't," Wamp said, "then the Congress is twiddling their thumbs while Rome burns."
Engineers, businessmen and politicians for years have considered the Chickamauga lock replacement the area's most important federal project. But Wamp -- whose 25-year-old son unsuccessfully challenged Fleischmann in the GOP primary in August -- sees conflicts between an ambitious plan to fix the lock advanced by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and a political pledge Fleischmann and other congressional Republicans signed to keep taxes low.
The Taxpayer Protection Pledge from conservative lobbyist Grover Norquist is a nonbinding document that frowns upon tax increases of any kind. While Fleischmann and Alexander have signed it, only Alexander appears to be abandoning it in a quest to build a new lock.
"This is Sen. Alexander getting out from underneath his party tent and doing what's right for the country," said Wamp, also a Norquist pledge signer from his days in office.
Lock projects by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are funded with taxpayer money and matching tax collections from commercial river users. Barge operators pay 20 cents per gallon of diesel fuel they purchase into the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which generates nearly $200 million a year to build and repair U.S. dams and locks.
About 90 percent of that money is being absorbed by the Olmsted locks and dam project on the Ohio River, which is over budget and expected to last nearly another decade.
Last week, Alexander visited the Chickamauga lock, which engineers consider structurally unsafe. He announced a two-step plan that involves removing Olmsted from projects paid for from the trust fund and swelling the fund with a barge-industry-backed 50 percent tax increase on diesel fuel. Under Alexander's proposal, recreational boaters still could use the lock for free, but commercial users would pay 29 cents per gallon.
Fleischmann is on record against any tax increase, even if the revenue eventually trickled into the local dam. In a statement regarding his approach to the lock, Fleischmann said, "I believe the funds should be distributed from the fund in a more equitable manner."
He did not attend Alexander's lock briefing, choosing an Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce appearance instead.
Asked about Fleischmann's role, Alexander said, "He's talked to me about how important it is."
Only 27 percent of the new lock is complete because the funding mechanism places it low on the federal government's priority list of locks and dams. For the first time, the president's budget included no funding for "aggressive maintenance" this fiscal year.
Wamp said his successor needs to be more flexible in solving the problem and open his mind to the user fee increase.
"I don't blame Congressman Fleischmann -- he is no longer going to be a freshman in January," Wamp said. "So he can step up as a sophomore and be bold. This is not U.S. income [from] taxpayers. This is the users of the lock agreeing to the increase in fuel tax to keep the river open for commerce so they don't go out of business."
When it comes to the lock, Wamp has more in common with Fleischmann's Democratic opponent, Mary Headrick. She has gone on record supporting Alexander's entire plan.
But Wamp suggested the lock isn't the only issue in this election.
"Of the choices voters have this Tuesday, I support Congressman Fleischmann," Wamp said. "Dr. Headrick is intelligent and capable but will line up behind big government. An endorsement of Chuck is not appropriate, but I wish him the best in the next Congress and appreciate his work ethic."
In October, Marilyn Lloyd, the former 3rd District Democratic congresswoman, endorsed Headrick.