- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2010

Though bruised and battered in the public, more than a year into its existence the stimulus bill remains essentially intact - but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle this week are launching bids to rewrite major parts of the $862 billion law.

A group of Democratic lawmakers is demanding that the Obama administration temporarily halt wind-energy-project stimulus grants, arguing much of the money is going to create jobs overseas, and are vowing to rewrite the law’s “Buy American” rules to make them apply to all those getting money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Meanwhile, with hundreds of billions of stimulus dollars still unspent, that pot of money is proving to be a popular resource for Senate Republicans who say the funds should be used to pay for other immediate priorities, such as $250 payments to seniors or hiring incentives for small businesses.

“It’s been a very inefficient use of funds to create jobs,” said Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, who offered an amendment Wednesday to shift stimulus funds to pay for small business tax breaks and investment incentives.

His amendment was defeated, 61-38, with three Republicans joining two independents and all but one Democrat in opposing him. Mr. Thune said Democrats have to defend the stimulus bill because they’re still “under the misguided illusion it’s working.”

That is, indeed, exactly what Democrats argued.

“I understand all too well that some on the other side of the aisle have argued that the stimulus bill was a mistake. But the facts are proving just the opposite,” said Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye, Hawaii Democrat.

He also objected to the way Mr. Thune’s amendment would slice the stimulus funds and leave the decisions up to President Obama’s budget office. He said turning the decision over to the administration could lead to cuts in highway funding, clean-energy incentives or other programs members of Congress say they value.

The stimulus act was the administration’s first major accomplishment last year, and passed with almost no Republican support - no House Republicans and just three Senate Republicans voted for the measure, and one of them ended up switching parties because of that vote.

It has since been battered by charges of waste and bad spending, but Congress has rejected every effort to rewrite the law, marking a major victory for President Obama.

“We always welcome ideas for improving Recovery Act implementation and have moved on some through administrative action, but it seems Congress has decided that overall we should continue doing what’s already working,” said Liz Oxhorn, a White House spokeswoman for the Recovery Act.

She pointed to calculations that suggest the law was supporting between 1 million and 2.1 million jobs as of the end of last year.

Congress has swatted aside previous efforts to change the stimulus act, with few departures.

One exception was when lawmakers voted to redirect $2 billion from one part of the stimulus bill over to another stimulus program, Cash for Clunkers, which ran out of money just days after it started.

Another change, to strike nearly $2.8 million in wildland firefighting money that the Forest Service sent to green-jobs programs in Washington, D.C., passed the Senate unanimously as part of a public lands spending bill last fall.

That provision was dropped by House and Senate negotiators who wrote the final version and who said the money was probably not justified, but balked at actually withdrawing it.

While the stimulus act’s provisions have defied changes, lawmakers have questioned the wisdom of some of the administration’s specific spending decisions, and some of those have been changed.

Among the dozens of bum projects Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, has singled out in two different reports, some have since been dropped.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Wednesday it was deferring or canceling 111 projects, totaling more than $15 million, for various reasons. Among them was $9,000 for a replacement freezer to preserve fish sperm in South Dakota, which the agency said ran into permit problems.

In another case, a martini bar in Missouri withdrew its claim on $25,000 in stimulus money after bad publicity, according to local press reports.

Republicans said they’ll continue to try to shift stimulus money to more urgent job-creation bills or use it to pay for other measures Democrats propose.

And Congress will also have to grapple with the move by three Democratic senators, headed by Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, to rewrite the Buy American provisions.

Mr. Schumer said under the current law wind-energy grant money is going overseas, including $450 million that a Chinese company could collect to build wind turbines overseas then ship them to Texas, where the actual project will be built.

The stimulus act already requires stimulus money received by federal, state and local governments to be subject to Buy American provisions. But private companies that receive grants are not restricted.

” ‘Buy American’ should apply to private companies that get stimulus money as well as the American government. We wrote it in for the government. We never thought private companies wouldn’t be covered. It’s a loophole,” Mr. Schumer said.

He and his fellow senators said the government should halt the grant to the Texas project, and said they’ll introduce legislation to rewrite the Recovery Act rules.

The Energy Department said it was open to working with the senators, but rejected suspending the program in the meantime.

“Other countries are not pressing the pause button on clean-energy industries, and they will move quickly to capture America’s share of the global market while we sit on the sidelines. The longer we delay, the longer we remain dependent on foreign oil instead of America’s homegrown, clean energy resources,” said Energy Department spokeswoman Stephanie Mueller.

She said the law requires that the actual energy projects be in the U.S.

The American Wind Energy Association said making the changes the senators suggest “would cost 50,000 American workers their jobs.”

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