By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Congressional Republicans objected yesterday to hurried consideration of President-elect Barack Obama's emerging stimulus proposal, questioning the economic value of many of the projects being floated for inclusion and voicing support for a more methodical process that might delay the legislation's passage well into February.
Concerned by Democrats' push to enact the massive bill into law within days of Obama's Jan. 20 inauguration, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R.-Ohio) issued calls for a lengthy vetting of the stimulus proposal, whose price tag could top $850 billion when it is completed next month.
"As of right now, Americans are left with more questions than answers about this unprecedented government spending, and I believe the taxpayers deserve to know a lot more about where it will be spent before we consider passing it," McConnell said in a statement. He coordinated the timing of the statement's release with Boehner, who questioned whether the plan would lead to "more pork-barrel spending that does nothing but give taxpayers' money to special interests and campaign contributors."
Neither GOP leader said outright that they would oppose the legislation, but Republicans, particularly McConnell, have the ability to at least slow the process, which could delay the infusion of federal dollars into the hemorrhaging economy.
Since mid-December, Obama's advisers and congressional Democrats have huddled in the Capitol crafting a stimulus plan that could cost $675 billion to $775 billion, with the expectation that Congress would add tens of billions more in negotiations; some economists are pushing for a package worth more than $1 trillion. Advisers have sketched an outline for the plan that would include about $200 billion in tax cuts for the middle class and businesses, and $350 billion or more to fund a massive infrastructure and technology program to rebuild the nation's highways, bridges, schools, hospitals and alternative energy sources.
Negotiators recessed for the holidays and are not likely to reconvene until after New Year's Day. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) have set a goal of passing the legislation as close as possible to Obama's swearing-in.
House Democrats, who need a simple majority to approve the bill, have considered passing it without going through the committee process, setting up a vote for the week of Jan. 12.
But the stimulus negotiations are posing the first test of Obama's pledge to run an administration that includes Republican input, something Reid reiterated yesterday.
"It is essential that we pass legislation to help create jobs and get our economy back on track. Senator Reid understands that the only way that we can do so is with the cooperation of Senate Republicans, and he intends to work on a bipartisan basis to pass an economic recovery package," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Reid.
"The state of our economy demands swift approval by both the House and Senate of an economic recovery and job creation package. While the House process is still being determined, the House has already laid the groundwork for this package with numerous hearings and the bipartisan package passed in September," said Drew Hammill, Pelosi's spokesman.
The Obama team's goal, according to congressional advisers in both parties, is consensus legislation that could win as many as 80 votes in the Senate, 20 votes more than the number needed to break a filibuster. Democrats will have at least 57 members in their caucus next month, as a recount continues in the hotly contested U.S. Senate race in Minnesota and a scandal involving the Illinois governor delays the appointment to fill Obama's vacant Senate seat.
Although talks with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill have been limited, Obama and his advisers have begun reaching out to GOP moderates, sometimes using Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. as a back channel to his former colleagues in the Senate, according to Democratic and Republican aides.
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), a key moderate, has received a call from Obama and has had a meeting with Treasury Secretary-designate Timothy F. Geithner. This resulted in a public statement from Snowe praising Obama's effort "to work in a collaborative fashion so critical to developing solutions." She has not expressed concern about the mounting cost of the stimulus plan.
"She thinks we need to spend what we need to spend to get the economy going," spokesman John Gentzel said yesterday.
But McConnell and Boehner sent a message that, beyond a few moderates, such bipartisan support might be hard to find.
As of Jan. 20, McConnell will be the most powerful Republican in Washington, managing a minority of at least 41 Senate seats that will allow the GOP to mount filibusters. Even if Republican moderates such as Snowe and Sens. Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Susan Collins (Maine) defect on final votes, McConnell is urging his colleagues to stay united on procedural battles to force lengthier debates and more votes on amendments, which might allow Republicans to draw concessions on some issues.
In yesterday's statement, McConnell suggested finding "the right mix of tax relief and other measures," signaling his hope for a larger portion of the bill going toward tax cuts than the current projections suggest.
His office has begun a daily ritual of digging through local media reports on stimulus spending proposals by mayors, highlighting what his aides consider egregious requests. Recent editions include Philadelphia's effort to collect $100 million in stimulus funding to redevelop land for a casino and Minnesota's plea for $6 million to help with snow-making at a ski resort. A New Hampshire official was reported calling the stimulus plan "free money" for local projects.
To slow the process, Boehner called for a week-long cooling-off period between when the bill is drafted and when it is voted on, allowing time to dissect it for signs of "irresponsible spending."