House and Senate Democrats moved Wednesday to begin demarcating the debate over an expected economic stimulus package — and outlined a breakneck pace for enacting the legislation — even as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) vowed to keep any specific House proposals under wraps until after meeting with President Bush next week.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he believes a short-term stimulus package could clear both chambers and be signed into law within just 30 days.
“I’m hopeful that we can then move together with the House, the Senate and the president to act quickly. Quickly means exactly that — quickly,” Hoyer said at a press conference. “I’m hopeful within the next, certainly, 30 days, to adopt a program that would be a stimulus to our economy.”
Pelosi did not offer a specific timeline in a separate press appearance Wednesday, but agreed that the issue would be dealt with promptly. “There is an urgency for us to do something and do something now,” she said.
Both Pelosi and Hoyer, along with House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are scheduled to take part in a conference call today with President Bush, who is traveling in the Middle East.
In an attempt to put together a proposal before the president’s Jan. 28 State of the Union address, Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said Wednesday that they were coordinating efforts on the Senate side by calling committee chairmen with jurisdiction over some of the leadership’s proposals.
“What has been very clear to us so far is the chairmen of these committees have been very supportive of the leader … understanding that there’s going to have to be action,” said Kennedy, who added that they have already had discussions with Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
Kennedy said he and Schumer were making the calls along with Reid.
In the House, top Democratic and Republican leaders met in a rare bipartisan session to discuss the expected stimulus package.
Exiting the 30-minute session, Boehner provided few details of the meeting, which also included Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), Pelosi and Hoyer.
“There is an agreement we will work together,” he said.
Asked whether Republicans would push for the inclusion of extensions for tax cuts now scheduled to expire in 2010 — viewed as a potential deal-breaker in any bipartisan negotiations — Boehner declined to answer. “We’re going to continue working together to find common ground,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Hoyer dismissed the possibility that those tax cuts would be included in a stimulus package, which Democrats have repeatedly asserted will be a temporary measure.
“I don’t think that anything I’ve read indicates to me that doing anything on those tax cuts at this point in time will have any effect on the economy in the short term,” Hoyer said.
Although House leaders have declined to outline any specific items that would be included in the package — with the exception of potential rebate checks to taxpayers, which both Republican and Democratic leaders suggested Tuesday would be in the range of several hundred dollars — rank-and-file Democrats said Wednesday that they anticipate a package that includes extended unemployment benefits and additional funds for food stamp programs. In addition, lawmakers in attendance at Wednesday’s Democratic Caucus meeting said a number of Members also called for the package to include relief for homeowners affected by the subprime mortgage crisis.
Schumer said Senate Democrats were coalescing around a package that would include a $300-$500 tax rebate for workers, middle-class tax cuts, increased food stamp benefits and extended unemployment benefits. Increased aid for providing home heating oil and aid to states for accelerated infrastructure projects also are possible, Kennedy and Schumer said.
“We’d like to see at least our [stimulus] package available out there — House and Senate — before the State of the Union, to move things along,” Schumer said.
Even as Senate Democrats laid down their markers for what kinds of spending programs they believe should be in the stimulus package, they sent strong signals to Republicans that they would be willing to include targeted tax relief as well.
“What we really feel is there has to be a balance between tax cuts and spending stimuli,” Schumer said, noting that some business tax cuts were “certainly on the table.”
But Schumer flatly rejected the possibility that Democrats would agree to making the president’s 2001 tax cuts permanent.
“The No. 1 obstacle right now … to getting a stimulus package is the insistence by many that the president’s tax cuts be made permanent as either part or even the centerpiece of the stimulus package,” Schumer said. “That will derail it as sure as we are here.”
But eager to show that Democrats are truly interested in a bipartisan economic plan, Schumer emphasized that he and other Democrats are already in talks with administration officials, such as Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Democrats also have solicited advice from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.
Senate Republicans appear to be waiting until next week when the chamber returns and leaders can take the political temperature of the conference. They also will be looking to the White House for some cues, aides indicated.
Still, Senate GOP aides expressed optimism that the party would find both consensus among themselves and with Democrats.
“At the end of the day, almost all Republicans are united on proposals that will return taxpayer money to taxpayers,” said one Senate GOP leadership aide. “The pressures surrounding this make it possible for some bipartisan cooperation to occur, and there’s a very real possibility of getting something through.”
Despite efforts to fend off any bipartisan disagreements, Democrats in both chambers may face opposition on a stimulus package from fiscally conservative members of the majority.
Members of the Democratic Blue Dog Coalition voiced concern Wednesday that House leaders could deem the stimulus package an emergency measure, and move to waive pay-as-you-go spending rules that require tax increases or other offsets for additional spending.
“Many of us are concerned about a knee-jerk reaction to the issue of the moment,” said Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), a Blue Dog co-chairman. Boyd disagreed with suggestions by at least one Democratic leader that the looming recession deserves emergency status. “This is not sudden and unexpected,” he said.
“We want to be agents of fiscal responsibility,” Boyd added of Blue Dog participation in negotiations over the proposal. Under PAYGO rules, any increases in federal spending do not need to be immediately paid for, but could be repaid in a five-year window.
“No one should be quick to move away from PAYGO,” said Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), the Blue Dog whip. She added that lawmakers would be more hesitant to “lard this up” with unrelated spending “if they know it’s going to be subjected to PAYGO.”
Hoyer, himself a longtime PAYGO proponent, said Wednesday that he could agree with House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), who has said that any stimulus package would not need to be paid for immediately.
“I think the Blue Dogs agree as well that PAYGO provides for a stimulus in the short term while not adversely affecting … the longer term,” Hoyer said.
Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), also a Blue Dog member, remained adamant that the stimulus package adhere to spending rules, noting that the House waived those requirements in December when it agreed to a Senate-authored bill to stave off the alternative minimum tax from thousands of middle-class taxpayers.
“We did a stimulus package in December; it’s called AMT,” Cooper said. “We waived PAYGO to do it. How many times are we doing to do that?”
But on the Senate side, Conrad said he favors passing a stimulus package in which the government does not get paid back immediately.
“You clearly cannot pay for stimulus in the year in which it’s offered or you offset the effect,” Conrad said. Instead, he said he’d like to put in provisions that ensure the costs would be recouped in the next five to 10 years.
Conrad added that he fears a deep recession if Congress and the Federal Reserve do not act. Citing the troubled credit markets and other economic indicators, he said, “I think that this is a situation that requires action. This poses a serious risk to the economy and it requires not only a fiscal response but also a monetary response.”