By Trevor Hunnicutt
WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden heads to Baltimore on Monday for a trip intended to cement his "builder-in-chief" credentials, a visit to friendly political territory that contrasts sharply with Washington's partisan battle over debt.
The event will celebrate the planned replacement of the 150-year-old Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel with funds from the $1 trillion infrastructure law that passed Congress with bipartisan support and stands as one of Biden's biggest legislative victories.
The U.S. Civil War-era tunnel is a major chokepoint for commuter and long-distance rail traffic on Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, which connects Washington, New York and Boston.
Officials are preparing to break ground on a $5 billion project that includes a new tunnel named for the abolitionist and Underground Railroad booster Frederick Douglass, which they hope will go into service by 2032.
Biden, who is contemplating a 2024 re-election campaign, is eager to tout his bona fides as a bipartisan dealmaker who can ramp up infrastructure projects to reduce traffic congestion, improve safety, ease climate change, boost economic growth, halt inflation and create high-paying union jobs for people without college degrees.
In Washington, Biden faces a colder reality as Republicans, now in control of the House of Representatives, threaten to block his economic agenda, bog down his programs in investigations and prevent the raising of the debt ceiling to force spending cuts.
Biden is set for a face-to-face meeting on Wednesday with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy for talks in the debt standoff, which threatens to hurtle the United States into an unprecedented default.
Monday's event takes Biden, a Democrat who touts his alliance with labor unions, to liberal Baltimore at an event expected to be attended by the state's governor and two senators, all Democrats. He is expected to announce an agreement between Amtrak and a labor group on the tunnel project, according to a White House official.
"The last time I walked it, they still had lights that were on a string hanging down, leaks in the roof," Biden said of the tunnel during a speech for Virginia union workers on Thursday. "Everything has to slow down, and there's a great worry that part of it could collapse."
Biden plans a similar event on Tuesday in New York related to that city's Hudson Tunnel project. On Friday, he will highlight the infrastructure bill's provisions replacing toxic lead pipes at an event in Philadelphia.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Mary Milliken and Gerry Doyle)