By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
On the eve of a House vote on a massive spending and tax-cut package, President Obama yesterday pressed Republicans to hold their fire on his economic stimulus legislation, urging them "to keep politics to a minimum" as the bill nears the finish line.
Obama devoted nearly three hours to separate closed-door meetings with House and Senate Republicans, an investment that is unlikely to result in new support for the relief package but could help clear a path to final passage. Participants in the meetings said Obama conceded that both the House and Senate versions of the bill had been larded with Democratic spending priorities and sought to reassure GOP lawmakers that their concerns would receive consideration during final negotiations.
As a show of good faith, Obama persuaded House Democrats to drop a $335 million Medicaid provision funding contraception programs that conservatives had protested, and also reiterated an earlier pledge to consider more small-business tax relief.
But the final product is certain to fall well short of the Republican ideal of seeing a package heavy with tax breaks and light on new domestic spending, and both the White House and Democratic leaders worry that GOP lawmakers will use procedural tactics to stall a final vote as they seek to erode support for the plan with the public. The big Democratic majority in the House makes it all but certain the bill will pass the chamber today.
For Obama, the stimulus represents the first step in a broader effort to address the economy's structural problems and to prevent a steeper decline, a complex process that could cost many hundreds of billions in additional funding, and is likely to require Republican cooperation.
"The recovery package that we have proposed and is moving its way through Congress is just one leg in a multi-legged stool," Obama told reporters during a break between the two sessions with Republicans. "We're still going to have to have much better financial regulation; we've got to get credit flowing again; we're going to have to deal with the troubled assets that many banks are still carrying."
But he acknowledged that the new era of bipartisanship he promised as a candidate has not firmly taken hold. "Old habits die hard," Obama said.
The House is scheduled to vote tonight on an $825 billion stimulus proposal aimed at creating 4 million jobs and giving individuals and businesses an infusion of cash. The bill includes $275 billion in tax cuts and $550 billion in spending on roads and bridges, alternative-energy development, health-care technology, unemployment assistance, and aid to states and local governments.
The Senate is expected to consider a separate bill next week. Last night, the Finance and Appropriations committees passed parts of the stimulus bill that total about $888 billion, clearing the way for debate to begin in the full chamber.
The escalating cost of the legislation has resulted in the rapid shedding of GOP support for the measure. Even after Obama's appearance, only about a dozen House Republicans said they remained open-minded about backing the legislation. That group was invited to the White House last night for a final lobbying session with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
Obama officials said they were realistic about their prospects. "We've all seen votes in this town where a few Republicans sometimes are hard to come by or a few Democrats are hard to come by," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters. "We'll take what we can get tomorrow."
In lengthy exchanges with Obama, Republicans expressed concern that the legislation would add to an already soaring deficit, complained that they had been left out of the drafting process, and vented that many provisions would not make an immediate impact. Obama acknowledged during the House session that certain extraneous provisions had worked their way into the bill's text.
"It's not a perfect process," he told lawmakers, according to several Republican participants. "That's reality."
Republicans praised Obama's candor and willingness to reach across the aisle, but said he conceded little ground and probably won few, if any, converts. He staunchly defended one of their least favorite provisions, a $500-per-individual tax credit that can be claimed by people who make too little to pay income taxes but currently pay payroll taxes. Republicans oppose the so-called refundable credits, arguing that they are a form of welfare.
"Feel free to whack me over the head, because I probably will not compromise on that part," Obama said of the refundability portion, according to a GOP participant who took notes during the House meeting. "I will watch you on Fox News and feel bad about myself."
Later yesterday, the Senate Finance Committee added a $70 billion fix to the alternative minimum tax to its version of the bill, a provision aimed at preventing the tax from being applied to middle-class households. Republicans support the provision but want to cut other measures to make room for it. The addition of the AMT provision may increase Republican support in the Senate -- the committee passed its portion of the stimulus bill, 14 to 9 -- but may deepen resistance among more fiscally conservative House Republicans.
Obama arrived on the steps of the snow-covered Capitol just past noon for his meeting with House Republicans, a group toughened by two years of partisan warfare against an aggressive Democratic majority. It was his first-ever session with rank-and-file Republicans, and by all accounts, the meeting was collegial, if lacking in tangible results.
Republicans complained that Democrats had stuffed the legislation with extraneous items, such as $200 million for improvements to the Mall, prompting Obama to call the two-mile strip that a week earlier had hosted his inauguration "kind of important," according to a participant in the meeting. Nevertheless, Democrats deleted that provision last night.
GOP participants said Obama took questions from members across the ideological spectrum, including from 82-year-old Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R-Md.), a 10-term conservative who reminded the president, "I was there" during the New Deal, while asserting that government intervention did not work then, either.
Obama urged Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), one of several Republicans who said that GOP members had been shut out of the drafting process in the House, to consult with his chief economic adviser, Lawrence H. Summers, on ideas for reshaping the bill during the final negotiations.
Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said Obama did not defend the stimulus as a model of sound policy, but rather described it as an urgent intervention that should be viewed outside of the traditional ideological framework. He said Obama told the group, "I'd rather be a one-term president who really makes an impact than a two-term president who is mediocre."
Obama drew his loudest applause from House Republicans when he noted he was running late for his Senate GOP meeting. "The Senate can wait," Obama quipped. As members cheered, he added, "I can pander with the best of you."
King said after the session, "It was one of those few moments down here where everybody did the right thing."
But when Obama departed, the first high-stakes vote of his presidency looked likely to break along the same party lines that he had pledged to break down as a candidate. Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) left the House meeting gratified by the White House outreach effort but concerned by school construction money included in the House bill. He said he viewed it as federal overreach into local education.
Despite his reservations, Castle said, "I'm gettable." But another GOP colleague, Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.), who was invited along with Castle to the White House last night, said the prospects for bipartisan support looked bleak, with the number of potential crossovers no higher than a dozen. "I'd say it's closer to zero than 12," Upton said.
Before 1:30 p.m., Obama and his aides crossed the Capitol, making a brief appearance in front of TV cameras before ducking into another hour-plus session with Senate Republicans. But even in the Senate, GOP moderates expressed surprising resistance to the package.
"My concern is the bill appears to be attracting worthwhile programs, but not necessarily programs that would have a beneficial impact on the economy," said Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), a moderate who has often voted with Democrats on fiscal issues.
Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.