- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Congressional leaders began hurried negotiations Tuesday to merge House and Senate versions of an economic rescue package, struggling to keep the price tag low enough to preserve a few key Senate Republican votes while satisfying House Democrats eager for more spending.

Contentious backroom bargaining is expected as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, pushes to spend tens of billions of dollars for school construction, “green” makeovers for federal buildings and other programs slashed in the Senate’s $838 billion version that passed earlier in the day.

“Our bill produced more jobs and we’re going to fight for those jobs,” Mrs. Pelosi told reporters shortly before entering the negotiations. “We’re there to fight for jobs. The Senate is not my responsibility.”

The Senate bill won passage Tuesday in a 61-37 vote with the backing of three centrist Republicans - Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Susan M. Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, both of Maine - whose support is indispensable for passing the final package and who don’t want to see the price budge.

Democrat Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a key broker of the compromise that passed the Senate bill, warned House Democrats against trying to force major changes.

“We haven’t said, ‘Take it or leave it.’ But what I would say is this has been done very carefully,” he said. “It is a very fragile alliance over here. … and it will still take 60 votes to pass it.”

Most Republicans oppose President Obama‘s stimulus plan, saying it is rife with scattershot spending that will create permanent new government programs, won’t help the beleaguered U.S. economy and risks undercutting a recovery by driving up federal debt.

President Obama, who met with Mrs. Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to set parameters for the negotiations, said the massive spending is the country’s best hope for reversing the economic downturn.

He called on Congress to pass the final package by Friday and the Democratic leaders vowed to keep lawmakers in Washington through next week’s planned Presidents Day recess if they miss the deadline.

Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, said Mr. Obama wanted “very minor” changes but conceded the negotiations have many moving parts.

“I’ve got the House to worry about. I’ve got the president to worry about. And I’ve got three Republicans that I’m concerned about,” Mr. Reid said at a Capitol Hill press conference. “So I’m not going to do any negotiating here.”

Although nominally carrying near-identical price tags, the two bills are worlds apart by Capitol Hill standards.

One major difference: The Senate bill would temporarily limit the bite of the alternative minimum tax for many middle-class filers, at a cost of nearly $70 billion. The Senate also doubled a tax credit for home buyers to $15,000, adding $35.5 billion to the bill in one of the few Republican victories in the Senate debate.

The House bill spends considerably more on aid to states and localities, much of it targeted for school construction and repair, and on an electronic medical records system, expanded child tax credits and health insurance for the unemployed.

With a nearly 80-vote majority in the House, Mrs. Pelosi and House Democrats can push through the final spending bill without any Republican help. But there are pressures within the 255-member Democratic caucus, with some conservative Blue Dogs and centrist New Democrats sympathetic to the Senate bill’s lower spending totals and higher tax cuts.

On the left, the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus released a letter sent Tuesday to Mrs. Pelosi attacking the lower Senate spending figures for education, aid to states and health care.

“A bill modeled on the Senate version would be very difficult for many progressives to support,” wrote Democrat Reps. Lynn Woolsey of California and Raul M. Grivalja of Arizona.

Senate Republicans after Tuesday’s vote complained both about the substance of the bill and the lack of bipartisanship in putting it together. Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, challenged Democrats to televise the conference deliberations to ensure openness and prevent any new spending programs from being quietly inserted in the package.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, noted that Mr. Obama has so far gotten just three Republicans out of 219 in the House and Senate to back his plan. Mr. Alexander predicted the president would have an even tougher time finding Republican support for difficult issues still in the pipeline, including energy and health care reform.

“This is not a good beginning to have the kind of bipartisan framework most of us want to have,” he said.

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