- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

Congress will return to work less than 24 hours after the historic inauguration of Barack Obama, tackling a busy schedule Wednesday that includes spending measures totaling more than $1 trillion and a confirmation hearing on a controversial nomination to the president’s Cabinet.

The economic crisis will immediately take center stage: The House is set to vote on whether to release the second half of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout and the House Appropriations Committee marks up the $825 billion stimulus package.

The authorization to spend the second $350 billion installment of the unpopular Wall Street bailout must overcome opposition from lawmakers frustrated that the Bush administration did not spend the money as advertised. The Treasury bought equity stakes in financial companies instead of purchasing bad mortgages, prompting top House Democrats to demand that some of the money go to helping homeowners avoid foreclosure.

The Obama administration has pledged to do just that, a move helped win the Senate’s support last week for releasing the funds. The bill passed the Senate in a 52-42 vote, a marked erosion of support since the original bailout bill sailed through the chamber in October in a 74-25 vote.

The House may want more than assurances.

“Millions of Americans have lost their jobs or face the prospect of foreclosure, and it is past time that we helped these families bolster their balance sheets,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

With the worsening recession as a backdrop, the House also begins the public wrangling over the $825 billion spending and tax package to jump-start the economy.

The Appropriations Committee will put the finishing touches on the $550 billion spending piece of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill that includes items ranging from $10 billion for scientific research to $30 billion for highway construction to $32 billion to modernize the nation’s energy grid.

But this massive spending and tax bill, which is nearly equal to the appropriations bill that annually funds the entire federal government, may be only a down payment for what Congress eventually doles out to boost the economy.

“This product may in fact undershoot because the economy is spiraling downward at a much faster rate than anyone thought possible,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat. “It could get much worse very, very, very, very fast, and I would not be surprised to see us having to go even further for some of these programs.”

The $275 billion in tax cuts will be fine-tuned Thursday by the House Ways and Means Committee.

The package faces opposition from Republicans and conservative Blue Dog Democrats concerned about the price tag and the impact on a federal deficit projected to top $1.2 trillion without the stimulus spending.

Republicans hit the proposal for costing $275,000 for each of the 3 million jobs that Mr. Obama promises it will create.

The Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a confirmation hearing Wednesday for Timothy F. Geithner, who is on track to be confirmed as Treasury secretary despite revelations he failed to pay Social Security taxes on his self-employment income from 2001 to 2004 and employed a housekeeper for more than three months after her visa expired in 2005.

Mr. Obama has defended his Treasury nominee, calling Mr. Geithner’s lapse in paying taxes an “innocent mistake.”

The Senate as early as Wednesday may take up a proposal to expand the popular State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, providing the incoming administration the first of what it hopes are many legislative victories on a path to universal health care coverage.

The measure would extend the program for 4 1/2 years and add about 4 million children to the 7 million already covered in the program.

The Senate proposal, which would expire at the end of March without congressional action, would cost at least $31 billion, although the cost may increase before the final draft is written.

The program would be paid for with a 61-cent tax increase on a pack of cigarettes.

The House last week passed a similar version by a vote of 289 to 139.

The Senate also is expected to vote this week on the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which would reverse a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that a worker must file claims of wage discrimination within 180 days of the first decision to pay that worker less, even if the person was unaware of the pay disparity.

The House passed the bill last week by a vote of 247-171.