Now that Democrats are running Congress, representatives from steel producing districts are renewing efforts to protect the industry from foreign competition.

And once again, the $5.6 billion

Bay Bridge replacement project is

Exhibit A.

This time, the "buy American" effort is supported by the head of one of the main contractors in the biggest phase of the project, even though the bulk of the 34,000 tons of structural steel his company will assemble will come from a factory near Shanghai, China.

Bob Luffy, president of the Pennsylvania-based American Bridge Co., told a congressional subcommittee last week that supports putting more teeth into the Depression-Era Buy American law. In addition to being a general contractor, as it is in a joint venture with Texas-based Fluor Enterprises on the $1.43 billion Self-Anchored Suspension Span, American Bridge also is one of America's dwindling number of steel fabricators.

If the law had been reinforced before the $1.43 billion contract for the bridge's signature span was awarded by Caltrans, the state's transportation agency, the steel would have been produced in the United States by workers making 20 times what their Chinese counterparts are paid, Luffy testified.

The hearing highlighted one of the issues that helped propel Democrats back into power, namely, Americans' frustration with outsourcing manufacturing to other countries and the resulting loss of U.S. jobs.

"When you look at the new Democrats that were elected, they were all protectionists," said Gary Galles, economics professor at Pepperdine University. "There's definitely going to be a push in that direction," but "until President Bush is gone, some of it is just posturing."

The way the Federal Highway Administration enforces the law, individual construction contracts that would cost more than 25 percent than foreign steel with American steel are exempt from the law, passed three years before the original Bay Bridgewas completed by American Bridge in 1936.

The cost of the 525-foot-high mostly steel SAS Span would have been $1.8 billion with American steel, so the foreign-supplied version of the contract was awarded by Caltrans in March 2006.

"If that percentage would have gone across the whole project, then it would have gone to a domestic fabricator," Luffy testified last week before the Highways Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

That is, the $370 million premium for American steel would have only amounted to 7 percent of the entire project to replace the bridge's eastern span between Oakland and Yerba Buena Island. Considered as an increase on the separate SAS contract, the increase is nearly 26 percent.

One of the members of the committee, Rep. Brian Baird,

D-Wash., has pushed for legislation that would beef up the law, including calculating costs on entire projects and raising the percentage that American steel can boost a contract before the foreign exception kicks in.

"The administration's interpretation of the law is flat wrong and illogical," Baird said in a telephone interview. Keeping the law weak helps weaken the domestic steel industry, some of which is based in Baird's district.

That not only deprives Americans of good jobs, he argues, but it also harms national security because there's no domestic steel supply in a time of crisis, like a war or national disaster.

"A great nation has to have a steel fabricating capacity," he said. "Imagine that the big earthquake hits and California and your (buildings and infrastructure) are all destroyed. Who's going to come rebuild them? Now what would your foreign bids look like?

"They're going to say, since you don't have a domestic industry anymore, here's the new price."

However Congress handles the issue, it's unlikely to affect the remaining work on the Bay Bridge, expected to conclude in 2013.

"I don't think that we're likely to do anything in the Congress that will retroactively affect the Bay Bridge project," Baird said.

And proposed changes in the law wouldn't affect the SAS span because the entire

$1.43 billion contract is covered by state and local funds, with no federal contribution, said Tony Anziano, chief of Caltrans' toll bridge program.

Contact Erik Nelson at enelson@angnewspapers.com or 208-6410. Read his Capricious Commuter blog at InsideBayArea.com.