My favorite cabinet secretary is the one who knows how to play hardball with Republican obstructionists, who knows the leverage he holds and is not afraid to use it. I guess that’s because he’s the only Republican in the cabinet*.

In some post-election hardball between the Obama administration and newly-elected Republicans, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is threatening to take back stimulus funds from states if they do not follow through on proposed rail projects.

CNN obtained copies of letters LaHood sent to incoming Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin who have stated their opposition to rail projects already underway in their states. In the letters, LaHood said a rail link between Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati in Ohio, and a high-speed rail connection between Chicago, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, are vital to economic growth in both regions.

Lahood wrote that he respects the power of governors to make decisions for their states, but, “There seems to be some confusion about how these high-speed rail dollars can be spent.”

To Wisconsin’s Gov.-elect Scott Walker, LaHood said that none of the funds can be used for roads or any other projects. He went on to say, “Consequently, unless you change your position, we plan to engage in an orderly transition to wind down Wisconsin’s project so that we do not waste taxpayer’s money.” That letter was delivered on Monday.

These Republican governors are engaged in a little game. They want to decry “wasteful spending” without reducing that spending one bit. They just want to move the high speed rail money into fixing roads and bridges. I imagine this is because that will be completed faster and with a higher profile than the longer-term HSR projects. So they get to keep their tea party base pleased while also giving the impression that they’re “getting things done.”

Surely LaHood would recycle this money by giving it to a high speed rail project that’s moving forward. I know we’d have our hands up out in California.

We’ve seen this game of chicken play out over the past two years, with governors who appear far more ideologically committed than Walker and Ohio Governor-elect John Kasich. Rick Perry, Mark Sanford and even Sarah Palin all made rumblings about not accepting stimulus funds, and they all buckled in the end. Walker and Kasich appear sincere about killing the rail projects, but now that LaHood has told them that the money is “use it or lose it,” let’s watch and enjoy.

LaHood hasn’t always won this game; just last month, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie canceled the largest infrastructure project in the country, the Hudson River rail tunnel. Now, to make his threat credible, LaHood is asking for the federal money back.

Now the feds want their money back from New Jersey. On Monday, a letter was sent from the Federal Transit Administration to New Jersey Transit, the state’s public transportation authority, requesting an immediate repayment of $271 million in federal funds already spent on the project. The letter stated the funds were obligated for the ARC tunnel and because the project was terminated, the money most be returned.

New Jersey Transit officials responded by saying they are reviewing the request and they do not agree that the issue is as clear-cut as portrayed in the FTA letter.

Poor Christie, he seems to have found a cabinet secretary who won’t take his garbage. Maybe he can go book himself into a five-star hotel while he sulks.

Ray LaHood, being a Republican, knows how to deal with Republicans – make them responsible for the consequences of their actions. They hate that.

* – My understanding is that Robert Gates is now an independent.

David Dayen

David Dayen