Stimulus Totters Home

Party Differences Mar Bill From Start to Finish

Posted February 11, 2009 at 6:48pm

After bungling the selling of the economic stimulus bill and miscalculating how much political capital they had to ram it through Congress, Democrats stumbled again on Wednesday’s announcement of a deal — delaying the beginning of the end for the now-$789.5 billion measure.

Clearly pleased that an agreement with the House had come together so quickly following Senate demands that the final measure stick closely to their version, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) appeared before television cameras Wednesday afternoon to formally announce a deal.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had given Reid her approval to go forward with the press conference, but she soon found that rank-and-file House Democrats were livid that a deal was being publicized while they still hadn’t been briefed on what was in it.

So while a packed room of reporters, staff and mostly Republican conferees waited for the beginning of the first formal conference meeting, Conference Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who serves as Senate Appropriations chairman, told the assembled crowd that House leaders needed to brief their Members before a conference could begin a little more than two hours later.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), one of four Republican conferees kept waiting for 30 minutes before Inouye announced the postponement, ripped into the Democrats’ handling of the bill.

“After meeting in secret throughout the night to come to an ‘agreement’ on the stimulus package, the Democrats now need to be briefed again on the agreement that they themselves wrote?” Lewis said. “Why not have these briefings and negotiations in public, in conference committee, which is the proper place? How about we brief the American people who are footing the bill for this legislation?”

Democrats dismissed the meeting hiccup and pointed to the accomplishment of getting a deal on the largest stimulus package ever just over three weeks after President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

“We had to make sure that the investments in education were there,” Pelosi said of the initial delay in the conference. “We would not go in before we were ready.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the conference report could be on the floor Thursday or Friday.

To be sure, the mammoth bill, designed to create more than 3 million jobs in order to shore up a still-weakening U.S. economy, appears to be on a path to enactment in record time.

Indeed, finalizing it may not even cut into the planned two-week Presidents Day recess due to start Friday — which has been the deadline Reid and Pelosi set for themselves.

As of press time, Democrats said they hoped the House could vote as early as today, with a Senate vote possible on Friday, unless Republicans employ procedural objections in that chamber.

But by early Wednesday evening, legislative language was still being finalized.

Because money for school construction had been a key sticking point for Republican moderates who supported the Senate version, a House Democratic aide said that working out final details, including language to allow governors to use funds for school modernization, led to the delay and said that House and Senate leaders had been working in concert throughout.

“We have been talking to them all the time, and this is nothing more that taking care of a few items at the end,” the aide said.

But major changes to the bill included scaling back Obama’s signature payroll tax break.

Though they cut back some of the tax provisions, the conference committee upped spending on infrastructure from $46 billion in the Senate measure to $49.6 billion.

They also added money for state stabilization funds. The House had planned on a $79 billion fund, with the Senate at $39 billion; the conference includes $54 billion for state stabilization, Senators said.

The announcement of a deal was just the latest misstep after weeks of wrangling over a bill that Democrats initially thought few Republicans would dare to oppose, given the solid gains in November voters handed to the majority party in both Congress and the White House.

In addition, the plan was originally conceived by Obama, who was prepared to pull out all the stops to sell the measure to the American people and whose popularity has hovered at around 70 percent.

Initially, Obama’s promise of bipartisanship appeared achievable. After listening to Republican complaints that the package did not provide any tax relief, Obama asked Congressional leaders in early January to create a package with about 40 percent tax cuts.

That elicited surprised, but pleased, responses from GOP Members, and even some of the most conservative held out the possibility that they might vote for the bill.

But the devil was in the details for Republicans, and not even vulnerable GOP lawmakers supported the first version passed by the House.

The only Senate Republicans whose votes were in play demanded a massive rewrite. Backed by centrist Democrats concerned that many provisions inserted by appropriators would not adequately stimulate the economy, three Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Arlen Specter (Pa.), and Olympia Snowe (Maine) — forced Senate Democrats to shave $108 billion from the measure.

“It was messed up immediately when it came out of the House Appropriations Committee, because it had all these things … that were easy to make fun of,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide.

Republicans agreed. “This bill was not written by a bunch of economists who were focused on creating jobs,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on CNN on Wednesday. “It was written by House appropriators with the attitude ‘We won. We write the bill.’ You couldn’t pick up one Republican in the House and you lost 11 Democrats. You’ve lost more Democrats than picked up Republicans” in the Senate.

But Reid spokesman Rodell Mollineau said that the only thing they misjudged was “Republicans’ willingness to do the right thing for the country, and put partisan politics aside to pass a strong economic recovery bill.”

Mollineau added that the effects of the bill would vindicate Democrats. “They haven’t won the message war. They’ve only won the message battle.”

In fact, Republicans proved less cowed by their election losses than Democrats had believed, and they defined the bill as laden with pork-barrel spending before Democrats really had a chance to rebuff them.

That was due in part to the fact that the new Obama administration — whose bully pulpit Democrats were counting on to drown out Republican naysayers — was still trying to find their computers in the West Wing and set up BlackBerry service.

The new administration also wasn’t firmly in control of the federal agencies who would be doling out the billions of dollars in the bill for infrastructure, education and other priorities.

“They were tackling this bill without a Cabinet … and that led them to rely too much on the committees and the committees wanted to pork it up,” said the senior Senate Democratic aide.

Though Senate Democrats attempted to right some of the wrongs they believed were committed by House Democrats, the GOP criticism that the measure would not stimulate the economy — bolstered by an early report from the Congressional Budget Office that said only 64 percent of the money would make its way into the economy in the next 18 months — began to worry some Senate Democrats.

Aides said Reid and other Senate Democratic leaders were slow to realize that they had a crisis on their hands and that they needed to cut the bill by billions of dollars in order to ensure passage.

Though leaders attempted to craft their own roughly $50 billion package of cuts, Collins, Snowe and Specter — along with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and a cadre of other Democratic moderates — demanded much more, $108 billion to be exact.

And Reid wasn’t willing to call their bluff and let the bill go down to filibuster, so he accepted the deal.

Though a number of Democratic Senators — including Mary Landrieu (La.) and Russ Feingold (Wis.) — initially balked at accepting such steep cuts to education and health care initiatives, Reid, with a strong assist from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, got his reluctant caucus to sign off on a measure many thought should be larger than the $838 billion measure the Senate approved.

In the end, the final House-Senate agreement reached Wednesday required even more reductions to satisfy centrists — and again the White House (now up and running) was able to quickly get House leaders to sign off on a bill more than $25 billion below the measure that passed that chamber.

“I think they had to become pragmatists to take a look at how fragile the 61-vote margin in the Senate actually is,” Nelson said of House leaders. “We were all saying any substantial departure threatened the success of this bill. … I think more there was a recognition that [we had] a certain amount of leverage.”

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.