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Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Congressional Reporter
Monday, February 9, 2009 11:00 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest in politics? Start each day with The Post Politics Hour. Join in each weekday morning at 11 a.m. as a member of The Washington Post's team of White House and congressional reporters answers questions about the latest in buzz in Washington and the Post's coverage of political news.

Shailagh Murray, Washington Post congressional reporter, was online Monday, Feb. 9 at 11 a.m. ET to take questions about the latest D.C. buzz and the Post's coverage of political news.

A transcript follows.

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Atlanta, Ga.: I like President Obama's outreach to the Republicans. Like most Americans, I've voted for both parties over the years. I think Obama's efforts make him look more like a adult than some members of Congress in both parties that think it shows weakness or foolishness. If in the end he gets no Republican votes, so be it, he still gets credit with me for the effort, and for giving the impression that he values everyone's opinion. Is this view shared by some of the people you talk to, or am I being too idealist?

Shailagh Murray: Good morning everyone. Please send your thoughts and questions about our new president and Congress, and this fine mess our country appears to be in.

Atlanta -- perhaps the Obama strategy is working, because this is exactly why he's making the effort -- so it looks like he's making the effort! That sounds more cynical than it is. True, Democrats would like Republican support for big initiatives, and on some of the tough bills that are coming around the corner, like financial regulatory reform, they will need to build cross-party coalitions. But for right now what's most important for Obama is that he acts like the guy that people think they elected.


Herndon, Va.: Last week Obama's Energy Secretary Steven Chu said: "We essentially need a second Industrial Revolution that can generate lots of energy cleanly, cheaply, sustainably." Is nuclear power a part of either the House or Senate versions of the stimulus package? Was it part of Obama's original package? France gets the majority of its electricity from nuclear power; why can't the U.S. do the same (or better)?

Shailagh Murray: There was some nuclear research money in the Senate bill, however I am not sure if that was axed by the moderates.

But more broadly, nuclear energy is certainly poised for a comeback, or at least a reconsideration, given its potential to help combat global warming. The big ifs are whether the waste and cost issues can be resolve. Obama has said he is open to nuclear power if they can be, and I imagine a lot of other Democrats would be too. But as I said, those are big ifs.


Rockville, Md.: How do the Republicans convince so many that some spending is not a stimulus? They have these rather arbitrary distinctions and then the press seems to support them. I am rather amazed. As President Obama said, this spending is a stimulus agent.

Or am I missing something? That is always possible.

Shailagh Murray: You're not missing anything. No question, the Republican "message" on the stimulus bill has been a moving target. It was too big, it was too rushed, it had the wrong stuff in it, it was going to increase the deficit. I guess they are betting that it's not going to work and they will look like heroes in two years, when we've gone off a cliff and even the federal government is broke. But what if it does work? I'd rather have Obama's cards right now, than John Boehner's.


re: Obama: Unlike your first chatter I am unimpressed with Obama so far -- he seems more image than substance. He makes nice with Republicans while allowing Pelosi to ram through a left-leaning bill. He promises ethics reform, and then signs waivers and nominates tax cheats. He promises to close Guantanamo bay, but decides he'll take a year to think about how -- he had the campaign and transition to work this out! So far he's talk, not walk!

Shailagh Murray: It's mind-bending that this administration is less than a month old and already we have a whole list of substantial decisions to assess.

On the stimulus battle, I think the lesson is that party loyalty only gets you so far. If Obama is after a certain outcome, he needs a lot more proscriptive at the front end, and provide more adult supervision throughout the process. On Daschle et al., he fell into the Washington mindset that insiders and party bigwigs have a longer leash. Wrong! They have a shorter leash! Right, A-Rod?

Obama needs to show he can close a deal. And he has a perfect opportunity this week, with this crazy bill.


Boston, Mass.: Shailagh: In these early stages it may be difficult to tell but how tight lipped is the Obama White House as far as leaks go? Are reporters being effectively shut out or are there enough uncredited sources spilling the beans?

Shailagh Murray: They're trying, but as we all anticipated after the election, now that we're off the plane there is no such thing as a secret. I was impressed that they kept the $500,000 salary cap under lid last week. But for the most part, things are back to normal in Washington, with plenty of good information circulating on the Hill and elsewhere. Wanna see the short list for HHS secretary? Just teasing.


Wilmington, N.C. : I'm new at this. So the House has one bill; the Senate theirs. So how is it decided which bill is passed and which is vetoed? Or do they get together and consolidate ideas from both? Thanks.

Shailagh Murray: This week the House and Senate will hold what's known as a conference committee, a huge gathering of leaders from both parties and both chambers, committee chairmen, and assorted others, who will set out to blend the two packages. Behind the scenes, staffers for all these folks will work around the clock, doing the real work. The Senate has the upper hand on this bill because Democrats aren't totally in control -- they have 58 votes, two short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster -- so they MUST retain some Republican support, meaning the final bill is likely to closely mirror what the Senate is expected to pass tomorrow. This process will take at least through Friday and very likely at least part of the weekend.


The Bet: Repeatedly the GOP through it's spokesmen or in some cases directly (Mitch McConnell springs to mind), have said that the failure of the Stimulus was their ticket to electoral success in 2010 and 12. That's their bet, but what d they want to come to the table with in two years: "We were for doing nothing!" Doesn't seem like a well thought out strategy.

Shailagh Murray: What the Republicans are doing right now is tactical, not strategic. They're doing a good job of getting noticed. But who can answer the question, What is the Republican vision for putting the economy back together again? That's how you win elections.


Arlington, VA: I think that the Republican talking points are that we need a stimulus, but that Obama's insistence on quick action on an $800B bill as an awful idea -- especially when it's full of pork and questionable spending.

The Republicans can come out of this looking well if the bill succeeds in jump-starting the economy on the basis of their press on better fiscal management. Obama gets points for working across the aisle, Republicans get points for bipartisanship while managing money -- Congressional Democrats would be the big losers.

Shailagh Murray: Republicans will not get any credit for this bill, if only three Senate centrists vote for it.


Washington, D.C.: The whole Michael Steele thing is getting weirder every day, as are his increasingly incredulous explanations. Do you think this might take him down or will it fly under the radar?

Shailagh Murray: This is going to be interesting to watch. It certainly would seem to neutralize the ethics battle that was heating up.


The Bullies: The group of Senators that cut $100 billion from the Stimulus plan are being misnamed. Look at the list of cuts and it comes right out: they went for the weakest hands...the groups that don't have the resources to defend themselves, an action that is usually defined as "Bullying"

Shailagh Murray: It's an ugly process. And the fun hasn't even started yet.


Farmington Hills, Mich.: Shailagh,

I agree that Obama should act like the post partisan politician the country elected. Do you think he is doing a good job of highlighting the fact that though he is willing to work with Republicans, the Republicans are still stuck in their old partisan ways?

Shailagh Murray: I think he's done that very effectively. Whether Republicans agree with Obama or not, they have a pretty favorable impression of the guy at this point. The question is, when does the president start drawing from that bank? It's pretty clear he doesn't plan to spend any of this capital on the stimulus.


South Riding, Va.: I can't deny that the economy needs something to give it a little boost, but I am still not convinced about the stimulus package. There seems to be disagreement about what should be in the package and how large it should be. There are questions about how the U.S. will pay for the package. And there are questions about the government's ability to manage quickly spending that much money. Will the House and Senate be able to come to an agreement and address some of these questions?

Shailagh Murray: Folks, one thing to keep in mind about this bill: it's not going to fix the economy by itself. The main goal of the stimulus is to bail out states that have literally run out of money and can't provide basic services. A secondary goal is to invest government money in sectors with growth potential, like energy and health care. Obama often talks of this bill as one leg on a multi-leg stool, and that's exactly what it is.

An important fact for people to keep in mind through this process: we are in a situation now where the government is the only real source of money. There is no private sector solution at this point -- which is why Republicans aren't getting anywhere with their tax cut proposals.


Rome, N.Y.: Hi Shailagh, I always enjoy your chats. The cynical equation that the GOP has made that considerations for the next election outweigh the present crisis makes me wonder: are things so rosy inside the Beltway that the pressing needs of the hinterland can go unheeded? What are the job and housing markets like in the metro D.C. area?

Shailagh Murray: You make a great point about beltway blindness. Up there in Rome, you must be well acquainted with the reality of the current crisis.

The job and housing market here is pretty okay -- at least inside D.C. In the outer suburbs, it's the same real-estate disaster that other exurbs are experiencing.

I do have to wonder how Republicans like Sens. Dick Lugar (Ind.), John Ensign (Nev.) and Mel Martinez (Fla.) can represent states that are hurting on very deep levels, and say no the huge pile of government cash on the table. Maybe they know something we don't.


McLean, Va.: What will new home buyers get out of this when it passes? (Tax credits, 4 percent interest rates, etc.?)

Shailagh Murray: Right now homebuyers will get a $15,000 tax credit, but that provision was added by Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, and negotiators are thinking they may drop it if he doesn't vote for the bill.

Interesting: this credit gets more attention than just any other provision in the bill. Maybe that's one of its problems, that the tangible benefits are so few.


Alternative to Obama: At the 2010 elections if the Republicans are seen as intransigent, obstructive and wrong, and the administration is seen as ineffective and hampered by inexperience where is an alternative to find good governance?

Shailagh Murray: Patience, people!

A year ago, Obama tied Clinton on Super Tuesday. Does anyone really want to predict what the landscape is going to look like in 2010?


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Do you think the Obama strategy is to get something/anything passed and then come back with appropriations that reflect Democratic priorities after he signs a stimulus bill? Do you think he erred in lending an air of legitimacy to Republican leaders with the splashy photo-ops designed to highlight bipartisanship which really doesn't exist?

Shailagh Murray: The reason this bill has so much spending in it, is because it's the last train leaving the station. You need to familiarize yourself with the term "pay go." The budget crackdown is coming and every member of Congress knows it. You can't blame them -- they believe this is what they're paid to do, to advance causes they care about.


President Obama: Unlike his predecessor who came into office enjoying a significant budget surplus and relative calm, President Obama is faced with a financial crisis on a variety of fronts. Sure, there will be missteps in dealing with a situation of this magnitude, but the man has been in office less than three weeks. I for one am appreciative of having a leader who speaks calmly, coherently, and authoritatively, who accepts responsibility for his mistakes, and who has shouldered a superhuman burden in leading the nation at this juncture.

Shailagh Murray: Posting some reader thoughts...


Washington, D.C: Is it fair to say that President Obama is overreaching the goal of the stimulus package? By including long term goals on health care, education, and energy it appears Obama has put Republicans between a rock and a hard place, help save the economy and advance his personal agenda or vote no and be labeled as refusing to help America.

Shailagh Murray: Another...


Re Arlington and Pork: Isn't the real objection now that the GOP is in the minority that the "pork" is not their "pork?" After all, Republicans had no problem running up all sorts of spending when they exploded the debt, increased earmarks by leaps and bounds, and loved all sorts of pork. Billions for abstinence only sex-ed comes to mind in spite of study after study that revealed what a waste that was.

Shailagh Murray: Another...


Deck Chair Rearrangement: The economy debate is truly off-course when Olympia Snowe and Ben Nelson are cutting the stimulus by $200 billion and the conversation is focused on individual programs (deck chairs) rather than the macroeconomic effect (lifeboats). Why won't Obama, Rahm, and the Senate leadership exert more control over their 58 Democrats and some moderate Republicans. Hey, it's still a new and a popular administration! I mean, won't these senators need their legislative and political support in the coming months? It's time to use some capital. Isn't that what Rahm is there for?

Shailagh Murray: Rahm was pretty instrumental on Friday night. I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot of him this week.


Fairfax, Va.: Obama is sure going through a rough time adjusting to the Washington bureaucracy. Politics is a tough and ugly game, and it seems that many politicians campaign on a false premise that they can change the bureaucratic/political culture of this town. I support Obama and his stimulus, but this seems tougher than he ever imagined. Do you think he'll get his plan through this week?

Shailagh Murray: I do think it will pass. But it will be a long week.


Toronto, Ontario: I've been detecting a strange narrative in the news coverage of the stimulus package. I'm not sure if it's because reporters in general don't know very much about macroeconomics or they're just ginning up controversy for something to do. I mean how credible are, for instance, tax cuts as stimulus when many people don't have any income to tax or if they do get tax cuts they will probably save most of the money as they did last spring with the rebate checks they received?

Shailagh Murray: Folks, I can't believe how many questions came in today -- and so many great ones -- and I'm sorry I couldn't get through them all.

I will close with this from Canada: some tax cuts are stimulative, and some aren't. Some spending is stimulative, and some isn't. The Congressional Budget Office shows very clearly the "spend out" rate for each provision. But please keep in mind -- there is no perfect solution here. The stimulus represents Congress's best guess, nothing more.

It's hard to ask for more, when all of our other major institutions have shredded their credibility. I've been in Washington 10 years and this is the first economic debate I've ever covered that assumes basically no role for the private sector.

On that cheerful note, go out and hug a road crew. Your future may be in their hands.

Bye, Shailagh


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