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Stimulus Could Trump Appropriations

Appropriators have been busy chugging through annual spending bills and are ready to move to the floor as soon as this week, if leadership will let them.

But this year’s bills already have veto threats hanging over them and little chance of going anywhere, with only a few exceptions.

That has leaders eyeing yet another stimulus package, which, if crafted carefully, could prove difficult for Republicans to resist as the November elections loom.

House and Senate appropriators have been busy highlighting that their bills would block the Bush administration’s attempts to slice billions from education and health care programs while beefing up energy research, veterans’ benefits, science and public housing as they aim to add more than $20 billion to Bush’s $1 trillion budget.

A House Democratic leadership aide said Democrats are discussing a new stimulus package with committee chairs and the Senate but still plan to move appropriations bills, with the potential for the military construction and Veterans Affairs bill coming to the floor this week or next.

No final decisions will be made on how many regular bills to bring to the floor or on a second stimulus package until leadership meets this week, the aide said.

Regular appropriations bills are vulnerable to criticism because they are laden with earmarks and spread spending throughout the government. But a stimulus plan with a few tangible, easy-to-understand and popular items such as energy assistance for the poor, infrastructure spending and another unemployment insurance extension might be an easier sell.

Democrats have bandied about ideas for another stimulus for months, particularly in the Senate, which has repeatedly found its add-ons to earlier bills stymied in negotiations with the White House.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has urged the House to move another stimulus package in July, and wants to include items such as police grants, energy assistance, Katrina aid and children’s health insurance.

“It would sure be nice if they could bring something up quickly,” Reid said before the July Fourth break. “And we’ll follow suit as rapidly as we can.”

Reid said Monday that he intends to pass at least the Defense appropriations bill before the August recess, and dangled the possibility of forgoing a week — the first week of August — of the Senate schedule if Republicans are compliant. But Reid has been pessimistic all year about moving more than a couple of appropriations bills given Bush’s veto threats.

Prospects for a stimulus package becoming law instead of acting as a campaign prop would depend on whether Hill Republicans and the White House can shore up their shaky ranks against more spending.

Democrats note that Republicans have recently caved on several issues, including GI benefits and an extension of unemployment benefits as part of the war supplemental and, in the House, a Medicare payment fix for doctors.

House Democrats once again would have to roll over Blue Dogs who have sought offsets for new spending, as well as suspend their pay-as-you-go rules, but there is now a well-worn path to overcoming the Blue Dogs. Democratic leaders have repeatedly said that a stimulus package wouldn’t be a stimulus if it were offset, and the prospects appear dim for doling out major offset pain shortly before an election.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pointed to last week’s reports that another 62,000 American jobs were lost in June as showing the need for more legislation.

“We are finalizing a comprehensive foreclosure prevention package to help the hundreds of thousands of Americans who are struggling to stay in their homes and passed legislation to curb speculation in energy markets. And we are committed to doing even more as America’s workers struggle in this economy,” Pelosi said. “Our nation has had six straight months of job losses, and we cannot afford any delay in making progress to create jobs and rebuild the American economy.”

But House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) dismissed talk of a second stimulus package before the break.

“I think that conversation about a second stimulus package was a way of trying to convince some Senators to vote for the first one or to vote for the supplemental,” he said. “I don’t think there was any serious conversation about a second supplemental. I don’t know when we’d do it.”

Republicans will continue to attack the Democrats’ decision to ignore the increasingly popular view in the country of opening up more land and sea to oil and gas drilling to increase domestic supplies.

“Saying it’s stimulus doesn’t make it stimulus,” said Antonia Ferrier, spokeswoman for House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “And furthermore, the spike in energy costs is one of the main reasons the economy is going through a tough time. The best stimulus the Democrats could do is commit to an ‘all of the above’ energy plan. They know it, we know it and the American people know it.”

Republicans are eyeing a House Appropriations showdown this week during a possible Interior bill markup, where they plan to offer a series of amendments seeking to open up offshore and onshore oil drilling. Democrats adjourned a markup on the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill before the break after Republicans sought to force votes on oil drilling instead.

Democrats, meanwhile, say the GOP isn’t offering anything new.

“As the economy continues to decline and make middle-class life less affordable, President Bush, John McCain, Congressman Boehner and other Republicans are offering more of the policies that got us into this mess in the first place,” said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.

Manley said Republicans have been remarkably cohesive in blocking agenda items overall but will be tested as more bad news comes in about the economy.

“The question is whether they are going to continue to stick together as we get closer to the election,” Manley said.

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