Obama's call for economic stimulus, jobs spending a tough sell in Congress

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2010; A11

Congressional Democrats were stewing Monday over President Obama's urgent appeal for more spending on the economy, saying they share his goals but need more help from the White House to fend off rising concern among rank-and-file lawmakers about budget deficits.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who last month struggled to sell a jobs package to skeptical House Democrats, reacted with stony silence to Obama's request, delivered Saturday in a letter to congressional leaders; her office declined Monday to issue an official response. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) was working to rally senators behind a key piece of Obama's agenda, but a top aide acknowledged that the going was slow and the outcome uncertain.

"We agree with the White House on the need to create jobs and get our economy on track, as we have been working to do since this crisis hit," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. "Unfortunately, we are dealing with a Republican Party that would rather say no than address the needs of their constituents."

Republicans aren't the only ones saying no to more spending. Late last week, several Democrats said they were unwilling to support the jobs package before the Senate, which includes several administration priorities. Among them: provisions to revive emergency benefits for unemployed workers, which expired June 2, as well as $24 billion in state aid that Obama has called critical to averting "massive layoffs" of public-sector workers.

But the package also would increase budget deficits by nearly $80 billion over the next decade. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said that's too much at a time when the total national debt is $13 trillion and rising. "The more we borrow on these important areas," he said last week, "the more I think we will retard the recovery period dramatically because of more deficit and debt."

According to Democratic aides and key lawmakers, the White House has done little to allay such concerns. The administration has sent mixed messages on spending, they said, touting the president's plans to freeze agency budgets and veto appropriations bills while urging lawmakers to spend more on job creation. And the White House has been largely absent from the congressional debate, aides said, offering little input on the radically slimmed-down jobs bill that ultimately passed the House.

In the letter Saturday, Obama made an unequivocal case for spending more now -- particularly on measures to support small business and state governments -- to ensure that the recovery doesn't "slide backwards." And administration officials defended their lobbying campaign, noting that White House Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Christina Romer met with two key groups of House Democrats in recent weeks to make the case for delaying major deficit-reduction until growth is firmly reestablished.

Despite Romer's efforts, Senate leaders this week were considering scaling back the jobs bill to win over moderates such as Nelson and Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) in time for a critical vote later this week. Meanwhile, House Democrats were talking about slashing another Obama priority -- money to preserve public teaching jobs -- from $23 billion to $10 billion and covering the cost with unexpended funds from last year's stimulus package.

If approved, that plan would continue a pattern of dialing back White House proposals. In its February budget request, the administration sought $266 billion in "temporary recovery measures" on top of last year's $862 billion stimulus package. So far, Congress has approved only about $40 billion in additional jobless benefits, according to congressional estimates, as well as a $15 billion measure called the HIRE Act, which created a temporary tax credit for businesses that hire the unemployed.

"If the White House wants this stuff," said a House Democratic aide, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about intraparty affairs, "they actually have to fight for it."

The administration has offered other, more popular ideas for combating a 9.7 percent unemployment rate, including a fund to promote small-business lending that the House is likely to approve this week. Unlike the state aid package, that measure has a designated funding source and will not increase deficits.

With Republicans hammering Democrats over the tide of red ink, paying for jobs bills may be the only way to pass them in advance of this fall's midterm elections, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said Monday.

"The problem is what's necessary in the short term and what's necessary in the long term are directly contradictory," said Conrad, a deficit hawk who pushed hard to create a special commission to address the nation's soaring debt. "In the short term, however, I believe we need more stimulus, unpaid for, because we continue to have weakness . . . But politically, unless things are paid for, it's going to be hard to get them through."

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