By Michael D. Shear and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
President Obama yesterday played down what he called "modest differences" between Republican and Democratic lawmakers working to craft an economic recovery package and expressed optimism that action on a massive spending plan will be finalized soon.
"We hope to be able to get a bill to you in the next couple of weeks so we can put America back to work and start digging ourselves out of this deep hole that we're in," Obama told Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R) at the White House yesterday morning.
Later in the day, Obama hosted the Democratic congressional leadership for an hour-long West Wing meeting to discuss the bill's status in the Senate, where lawmakers began formal debate yesterday.
The meeting was "productive," press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement afterward, adding that the president and the Democratic leaders agreed on the urgency of working to "achieve the bipartisan consensus that the president has sought throughout this process."
But two Democratic sources with knowledge of the meeting said the president took a blunt tone with the lawmakers, urging them to drop whatever needs to be cut from the bill to gain bipartisan support and to pass Congress soon.
One source said Obama appeared to be frustrated by the public perception that the recovery bill was becoming laden with partisan pet projects.
The legislative leaders left the White House without comment yesterday evening.
The Senate is expected to begin voting this afternoon on a growing list of amendments to the legislation after the House passed an $819 billion spending package last week with no Republican support.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said yesterday that he still hopes to complete debate by the end of the week. That would give House and Senate negotiators a week to reconcile the two measures before the Feb. 13 deadline set by congressional leaders for sending a final bill to Obama.
Congressional budget analysts reported yesterday that the Senate version would cost $884.5 billion over 10 years, a significant increase from the House version. Much of the difference is due to the Senate's decision to protect millions of taxpayers from the bite of the alternative minimum tax for another year, at a cost of about $70 billion.
The addition of the AMT provision helps to increase how quickly money is likely to be spent. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Senate measure would pump $694 billion into the economy by the end of fiscal 2010, or about 78 percent of the overall cost of the bill. Under the House version, only about two-thirds of the money would be spent by the end of 2010.
On Capitol Hill, GOP lawmakers hope to add more tax relief to the bill and target the foreclosure crisis, but will also seek to strike spending measures that Democrats inserted into the legislation.
The lengthy debate, with votes expected throughout the week, is a departure from the usual Senate routine in recent years, when the majority blocked most amendments from the minority, often resulting in acrimonious procedural delays. So far this year, Reid has kept the floor open, and he has vowed that on the stimulus bill the Senate will consider "as many amendments as people feel is appropriate."
Republican leaders expressed optimism that they will get an open hearing on their ideas in large part because of Obama, who has courted them assiduously in recent weeks and who has sent signals that he is willing to consider GOP changes through the final negotiating process.
Republican amendments will seek to lower mortgage rates and to cut income tax rates for the bottom two brackets. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said one target would be a "Buy American" provision that critics warn could spark a global trade war. Republicans also strongly oppose the hefty state aid portion of the bill that would help cash-strapped state and local governments to meet soaring Medicaid, education and other public-service costs.
Democrats also will seek changes to the bill. Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.) want to add tax changes to allow companies to repatriate offshore profits. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) are collaborating on an amendment that would cut the overall package by about $200 billion, through the elimination of various non-stimulative provisions.