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The Senate Balks

Why President Obama should heed calls for a more focused stimulus package

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Thursday, February 5, 2009; Page A16

Today in The Post, President Obama challenges critics of the $900 billion stimulus plan that was taking shape on Capitol Hill yesterday, accusing them of peddling "the same failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis" and warning that, without immediate action, "Our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse." A thinly veiled reference to Senate Republicans, this is a departure from his previous emphasis on bipartisanship. Still, as a matter of policy, Mr. Obama is justified in signaling that the plan should not be tilted in favor of tax cuts -- and that the GOP should not waste valuable time trying to achieve this.

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However, ideology is not the only reason that senators -- from both parties -- are balking at the president's plan. As it emerged from the House, it suffered from a confusion of objectives. Mr. Obama praised the package yesterday as "not merely a prescription for short-term spending" but a "strategy for long-term economic growth in areas like renewable energy and health care and education." This is precisely the problem. As credible experts, including some Democrats, have pointed out, much of this "long-term" spending either won't stimulate the economy now, is of questionable merit, or both. Even potentially meritorious items, such as $2.1 billion for Head Start, or billions more to computerize medical records, do not belong in legislation whose reason for being is to give U.S. economic growth a "jolt," as Mr. Obama himself has put it. All other policy priorities should pass through the normal budget process, which involves hearings, debate and -- crucially -- competition with other programs.

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is one of the moderate Republicans whose support the president must win if he is to garner the 60 Senate votes needed to pass a stimulus package. She and Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska are working on a plan that would carry a lower nominal price tag than the current bill -- perhaps $200 billion lower -- but which would focus on aid to states, "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects, food stamp increases and other items calculated to boost business and consumer spending quickly. On the revenue side, she would keep Mr. Obama's priorities, including a $500-per-worker tax rebate.

To his credit, Mr. Obama continues to seek bipartisan input, and he met individually with Ms. Collins for a half hour yesterday afternoon. We hope he gives her ideas serious consideration.

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