Talks on a bill to help the economy moved at a snail’s pace yesterday as lawmakers spent most of the day haggling about how many people should sit at the bargaining table.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans last night tried to force the Democrats’ hand by offering as amendments measures to create a national energy policy and to ban human cloning. The action set up showdown votes on those issues for Monday.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, had tried to postpone debate on energy and cloning until early next year. Democrats especially oppose the administration’s plan to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
“We’ll have an opportunity now to have a full debate on energy and cloning,” said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican.
As the negotiations limped along on a bill to stimulate the economy, the top House Democrat blamed President Bush and congressional Republicans for “mismanaging” the economy and creating the legislative delay.
“The president is managing the war well,” said Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. “He is mismanaging the economy with the help of his colleagues in the Senate and in the House. If the House Republican leadership was not involved in this discussion, we’d have an agreement in about 10 minutes.”
Replied Mr. Lott: “I know that Congressman Gephardt once again would like to try to get his party’s nomination [for president], but I don’t think he will, whether he uses this tactic or not. For them to begin at this point attacking this president is a loser politically.”
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, said Mr. Gephardt “sounds like a guy who longs for the old days when they were in power someone who can’t stand not being at the center of attention.”
By day’s end, a general outline to begin talks had taken shape. House Republicans proposed a conference with six negotiators three each from the House and Senate. Senate Democrats countered about six hours later with a proposal for eight conference members five House members (three Republicans and two Democrats) and three senators (two Democrats and one Republican).
Lawmakers last night expressed optimism that substantive talks would begin today. But Senate Democrats were pushing for the ability to amend any bill on the floor, something House Republicans opposed.
The negotiations on a economic-stimulus proposal became necessary because the Senate, with 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one independent, was unable to pass a bill. The House has approved a bill that would provide about $100 billion for the economy next year, mostly through tax relief for businesses.
Mr. Bush has been pressing lawmakers to complete work on a bill as the economy officially slides into a recession and the jobless rate climbs.
Both parties again blamed each other for delays yesterday.
“I’m getting to the point where I wonder whether they really want economic stimulus,” Mr. Daschle said of the Republicans.
Mr. Daschle’s remark angered Mr. Thomas. He ridiculed the Senate for being unable to do its work, calling the pending talks “virtual reality.”
Mr. Thomas implied that Mr. Daschle was empty-headed, saying it was “easier” to get inside Mr. Gephardt’s head, “because you bump into things there.”
Replied Daschle spokesman Doug Hattaway: “The House Republicans have slowed this process and are now resorting to personal attacks. If they were really serious about a bipartisan stimulus bill, they’d drop the insults and come to the table.”