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Democrats to Brand Bills as Sons of Stimulus

Recognizing the political potency of the sagging economy, Senate Democrats are setting up a months-long, multipronged effort to tie the majority of their legislative agenda to heading off a recession.

“It’s not so much politics as it is common sense,” said Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.). “The economy is in trouble, and the American people are wanting to see a Congress hard at work to address it. So, I think a lot of our agenda is going to be to reach out and try to address things that are affecting Americans in their daily lives.”

With a bipartisan compromise on their first economic stimulus package behind them, the second, third and fourth waves of Democratic legislative endeavors likely are to be partisan if this week’s debate on the Democrats’ second “stimulus” bill is any guide.

“I have no intention of trying to work something out with the White House because I’ve found in seven-plus years that they are totally unwilling to compromise anything,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday of the prospects for a bill to aid homeowners facing foreclosure.

The housing bill has little in common with the $156 billion economic stimulus of tax rebates, but that hasn’t stopped Democrats from dubbing it their “second stimulus” bill. It’s a branding approach that Democrats said will be a common sight this year.

“They don’t call ‘horse mackerel’ horse mackerel anymore. They call it tuna so they can sell it,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). “Labeling becomes extremely important. … Sometimes it’s a bigger stretch than others.”

He added, “But anytime you have a critical period with your economy, you should be thinking about any legislation … and how it will positively or negatively affect your economy.”

Despite efforts to make the housing bill more palatable to Republicans by calling it stimulus, Reid said he expects a Senate GOP filibuster, and President Bush has threatened to veto the bill over a provision that would allow bankruptcy courts to renegotiate the terms of mortgages on primary residences.

Reid said he expected to begin formal debate on the bill this week, and he also indicated that another stimulus bill would be forthcoming “in the near future.”

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said Wednesday that the budget blueprint he intends to consider in committee next week probably would make room for a $35 billion economic stimulus package. The proposal is likely to include extended unemployment benefits as well as additional funding for food stamps and low-income home-heating assistance, he said.

Unemployment and home-heating funds were included in the Senate Finance Committee’s version of the first stimulus package but ultimately were jettisoned in the face of a Senate GOP-led filibuster.

Dealing with those issues as part of the budget will give Democrats two more chances to drive home their message since they will vote on nonbinding language on the budget blueprint and then, later in the year, take up a bill patterned after that outline.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) added that Democrats already are discussing the possibility of adding unemployment benefits and other failed Finance stimulus proposals to the Iraq War supplemental scheduled for consideration in April or May.

In addition, any other bill that has a potential positive economic impact likely will be framed in those terms, Senators said.

“The issues in my state and every state are economic,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “So I think it’s all going to be wrapped around what we can do for economic growth.”

For example, Stabenow and Conrad held out the possibility of a multibillion infrastructure spending package that would be included in the budget. And Democrats acknowledged that even the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill could be tagged as economic stimulus.

“When you invest in infrastructure, those are American jobs. Those jobs cannot be exported to another country,” said Stabenow, whose state has the nation’s highest unemployment rate. “I would argue that investing in domestic priorities right now is all about jobs and the economy.”

But Republicans said Democrats will have to overcome a determined opposition to higher spending proposals. Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said the GOP would have a “bigger, bolder, broader pro-growth economic plan that includes such things as making permanent [Bush’s tax cuts]. It will include lower corporate tax rates, but a pro-growth economic plan is much more than low taxes.”

Alexander said Republicans also would be pushing limits on civil lawsuits, higher teacher pay, proposals for lower health and energy costs, and tax credits for those who buy foreclosed or newly constructed homes.

“We believe we’ve got a much better story to tell than their big spending plan,” he said.

Still, that’s a fight Democrats seem to relish.

“It’s going to be contrasted with the Republican effort of more tax cuts for the rich,” Brown said. “We can do infrastructure. We can do alternative energy. We can do different trade policies. Or we can choose more tax cuts for the top five percent. I think it’s going to be pretty clear to voters that way.”

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