The Washington Times - February 11, 2009, 01:28PM

UPDATE - 5 P.M. - I asked White House press secretary Robert Gibbs today about the fact that the conference committee process for the economic stimulus bill did not fit the criteria of the open process President Obama outlined during his campaign.

Gibbs first tried to feign ignorance, then tried to change the subject, and then when pressed refused to answer. Here is the transcript of the exchange:

SEE RELATED:


 Q During the campaign, the website had an ethics plank that said that Obama would work to reform the congressional rules to require all legislative sessions, including committee markups and conference committees, to be conducted in public, and that would enable the American people to hold their leaders accountable for wasteful spending.

       Why wasn’t this conference committee done in that way?

       MR. GIBBS: I don’t — I’d have to look at what you’re referring to. I don’t know what the Congress has done. Obviously, it — some of that might have been enormously helpful to what we were just — (chuckles) —

       Q Well, the Republicans are charging, and I think accurately so, that a lot of the discussions were behind closed doors, that a lot of this —

       MR. GIBBS: But I — you know, I think a lot of those discussions behind closed doors have involved Republicans.

       Q Right.

       MR. GIBBS: They’ve happened behind those closed doors here; they’ve happened behind large wooden closed doors on Capitol Hill.

       Q What difference would it make if it’s Republicans — (off mike)?

       MR. GIBBS: Well, the question was about Republicans, so that’s specifically —

       (Cross talk.)

       Q What difference would it make —

       MR. GIBBS: Well, look, I encourage you to ask many members of Congress the question that you posed to me. I’m addressing simply the larger notion of whether or not — in your follow-up question, whether Republicans have been consulted. I think they have, and I think many have said that they’ve seen and talked with the president more in this administration than they have in previous administration —

       Q But the main question is still — the main question —

       (Cross talk.)

       Q Would the president like to — (off mike) — these things — I think the question is, would the president like to see these conference meetings open, whether the —

       MR. GIBBS: Yeah. Yeah. He does. The president would like to see — and the press secretary would like to see the outlines of a purported agreement that has been signed off on, so that I can get you appropriate (rhetoric ?). (Cross talk.) Peter?

       Q Robert, Robert —

       Q No, no, no, I don’t think you’ve answered the question, the question about the process —

       MR. GIBBS: Well, I understand. I don’t have anything more than what I gave you.

–—

Senate and House negotiators are set to meet today at 3 p.m. to resume talks over the stimulus bill, which is currently reported to be around $790 billion.

But Republicans are carping about the way in which the small conference committee hammered out a deal behind closed doors as they met late into the night yesterday.

“We just wanted to highlight one key part of President Obama’s change agenda that got shut out of the closed door meetings on the Democrats’ spending bill,” said Joe Pounder, a spokesman for House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.

Pounder pointed to the ethics portion of the Obama campaign’s website ** correction: the transition website **, which included a section called “End the practice of writing legislation behind closed doors.” 

“As president, Barack Obama will restore the American people’s trust in their government by making government more open and transparent. Obama will work to reform congressional rules to require all legislative sessions, including committee mark-ups and conference committees, to be conducted in public,” the campaign website said.

“By making these practices public, the American people will be able to hold their leaders accountable for wasteful spending and lawmakers won’t be able to slip favors for lobbyists into bills at the last minute,” it said.

The stimulus, Pounder said, “certainly was ‘behind closed doors.’”

And who are these nameless, faceless negotiators? White House bureau chief Stephen Dinan, who has years of experience on Capitol Hill, helped fill in these details for me.

There are 10 lawmakers represented in the conference committee, who meet mostly behind closed doors but are required to meet at least once in public before passing a compromise bill. Sometimes they are represented by staffers in negotiations and sometimes they attend the meetings themselves.

The White House has sent Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel and Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, to the negotiating sessions. They are not part of the conference committee.

The majority party, the Dems in both chambers, get an extra person from the Senate and House. So there are six Dems and four Republicans in the group.

From the Senate: Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, Hawaii Democrat, Finance Ranking Member Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, and Appropriations Vice Chairman Thad Cochran, Mississippi Republican.

From the House: Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, California Democrat, Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, Wisconsin Democrat, Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, New York Democrat, Appropriations Ranking Member Rep. Jerry Lewis, California Republican, and Ways and Means Ranking Member Rep. Dave Camp, Michigan Republican.

- Jon Ward, White House reporter, The Washington Times