Tuesday, February 17, 2009

President Obama on Tuesday will sign an economic stimulus bill that is four times bigger than he first called for, includes smaller tax cuts than he wanted, drew fewer Republicans than desired and was done nearly a month later than he had hoped.

But he got it done.

The $787 billion bill hits Mr. Obama’s goal of spending three-quarters of the money within 18 months, and in the best-case scenario could create 3.6 million jobs, according to the Congressional Budget Office - putting it still within range of Mr. Obama’s goal of producing 3 million to 4 million jobs. It also will be the first big test of Mr. Obama’s pledge to open the government’s spending books for taxpayers to review.

“If you go back to what we discussed on December 12 in Chicago, this is close to about 90 percent - the final bill that we’re voting on - about 90 percent of what we were thinking about,” White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told reporters as he reviewed the path of the bill.

Mr. Obama will sign the bill at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science on Tuesday afternoon before heading to Phoenix, where he will announce his plan to stem home foreclosures Wednesday. His administration also is trying to come up with another rescue plan for bad financial assets.

The $787 billion bill is a far cry from the campaign days just before the election when Mr. Obama called for what was then a shocking $175 billion stimulus package. As late as December, Mr. Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress had appeared to agree on a $500 billion range for the measure. But as job losses mounted, so did the size of the spending - so much so that the Senate’s bill at one point was about $900 billion.

Even as the final measure was progressing through Congress, Mr. Emanuel said, the White House wanted a bill in the $820 billion to $830 billion range but had to come in lower to get it to pass.

It was not the administration’s only backtracking.

Mr. Obama has missed his goal of not signing bills until they have been available for five days on the White House Web site, and Democrats in Congress wrote the final version in exactly the sort of closed-door sessions the president has said he would end.

On specifics, Mr. Obama had to scale back the number of jobs he projected the bill would create from 4 million to about 3.5 million, and CBO said that was possible only in the best-case scenario for 2010. CBO said that the spending might create just 1.2 million new jobs by 2010.

On tax cuts, the Obama administration initially embraced 40 percent of the package go to tax cuts, but the final version ended up with only 33 percent of the package going to tax cuts. Republicans discounted a large chunk of those cuts because they go to raising the threshold before earners pay the alternative minimum tax, a levy Congress would have fixed in another bill anyway.

Mr. Obama also had to yield on one of his key priorities, slicing his “Make Work Pay” tax credit by 20 percent in order to get congressional Democrats to give way on their priorities. But the White House said those were all pragmatic decisions needed to get legislation passed quickly.

“We thought that by putting some skin in the game first, it would get people off of positions that they were trying to hold. And at the end of the day when you look at it, that’s exactly what happened,” Mr. Emanuel said.

The bill includes $120 billion for what Democrats said was “infrastructure and science” spending, $105.9 billion for education and training, $21 billion to pay for health coverage for workers who lose their jobs and $19.9 billion for food assistance to the poor.

With CBO projecting that 74.2 percent of the spending and tax cuts come in the next 18 months, the bill meets Mr. Obama’s goal of 75 percent of spending coming before the end of fiscal 2010.

Mr. Obama also is taking steps to make sure that as the money’s spent, it matches his pledge of accountability.

His team is preparing a basic version of www.recovery.gov, which the president has been touting for weeks and will allow anyone to track the spending.

A senior administration official familiar with the site’s launch said it will start with a basic framework but over time will become more sophisticated as the money is spent on construction and other projects.

“It’s not just going to be a pretty graph. We will be providing the data and saying here’s how we’ve decided to present these numbers, and some basic source files so you can present it your own way,” the official told The Washington Times, requesting anonymity because the site has not launched.

The site will allow people to flag items, comment and participate in the conversation about how the economy has affected them and how the recovery package might help, the official said.

Republicans have balked at the price of the stimulus package, and even at CBO’s best-case scenario of 3.6 million extra jobs at its peak in 2010, that works out to nearly $220,000 per job.

“Imagine how many jobs could be created if the legislation was focused on meaningful economic growth rather than special-interest spending,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, as the bill came before the Senate for a final vote late last week.

• Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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