A week after his Inauguration, President Barack Obama will be back in the Capitol on Tuesday, courting Republican votes for his recovery program and countering fresh questions about the effectiveness of his plans to quickly pump $825 billion into the economy.
With the House slated to vote on passage Wednesday, Obama will meet there first with rank-and- file Republicans at noon and then cross the Capitol to join a Senate Republican luncheon.
The twin visits are an exceptional gesture for any president, but they follow two ominous signs late Monday.
First, Obama’s choice for treasury secretary and economic point man, Timothy Geithner, won Senate confirmation by just a 60-34 vote. Second, the Congressional Budget Office issued its final report suggesting that only about two-thirds of the money would reach the economy in the next 18 to 19 months, well short of the goal set by Obama.
The 23 page CBO report, the first full analysis by the budget office of the House bill, predicts the measure will have “ a noticeable impact on economic growth and employment in the next few years.” But the outlay rate is still slower than the administration had hoped and could feed Republican demands to either scale back the package or add more new tax cuts.
Nonetheless, the president is betting that politeness and high poll numbers will help defuse some of the partisan tensions stirred up by the massive, fast-moving stimulus bill.
“Step one is to show up as he is doing and seriously consider ideas,” said Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate Republican Conference. “That means a lot both for this legislation and down the road.”
The action comes as the Senate Appropriations and Finance committees on Tuesday begin marking up their portions of the package, which the leadership hopes to bring to the floor later this week. In a bid for Republican support, the Appropriations panel has budgeted about $1 billion in new crop disaster aid, important to Gulf Coast and Midwest farmers who suffered from storms and flooding in the second half of 2008. And the tax portion before the Finance Committee is drawing intense lobbying from business interests as well as the wind energy lobby.
Even Tuesday evening, the Senate Appropriations leadership was withholding a full public release of its bill, which marks a debut of sorts for Sen. Daniel Inouye, the incoming chairman. But the 84-year-old Hawaii Democrat and World War II combat hero is no stranger to the Senate, and his long history as a bipartisan figure in the chamber dovetails with Obama’s plea to put aside party differences given the economic crisis.
“Excited is not the word — challenged,” Inouye told Politico of his feelings going forward. “I expect on this bill, debate. I can read the papers. I welcome that because I want to be able to convince my colleagues that what we are facing is really terrible if we don’t act fast.
“We thought it was horrendous when 524,000 lost their jobs in December,” Inouye continued. “This month I would anticipate 600,000. ... You’re averaging 20,000 a day. That’s unacceptable to me. I would hope the members are convinced, No. 1, the crisis is real; No. 2, that we must act and act fast; No. 3, we are going to make mistakes. I’m not infallible — no one’s infallible — but let’s hope we don’t make too many mistakes.”
Adding the agriculture money — a priority for Inouye’s ranking Republican, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi — is part, too, of Inouye’s old school style that won’t always sit as well with the new White House.
“I’m a realist,” he said, “Members are supposed to keep in mind their constituency. I do that, and I’m not embarrassed.”
True to the president’s request, the new package will be free of spending earmrks, but Inouye warned that no one in the new administration should expect that practice to disappear forever.
“If they’re hoping to wipe out earmarks, then they don’t have an ally,” the chairman said. “Because I’ll say this now and I’ll say it again and again and again. I wasn’t elected to be a rubber stamp.”
With House passage all but certain, the Senate is the greater battleground for Obama, and already, the administration is looking ahead to conference, when the two chambers meet to reconcile their differences.
White House officials have signaled that they want to keep the final cost close to the $825 billion target, and that will require Democrats to step back from popular initiatives that have been squeezed into the two competing bills. Nothing in the House bill, for example, matches the crop disaster funds in the Senate package. The Senate is already more generous to business than the House, even as it trims back on a House provision targeted to low-income, working-class families.
Obama’s signature payroll tax credit is in both bills, but the Senate would phase out the credit faster for upper-middle-income families even as it expands a popular $300 payment to the elderly and veterans who otherwise wouldn’t benefit from the Obama plan.
In each case, there are logical compromises, but these can be ticklish if both sides are to stay in the $825 billion cap. At the same time, Senate Republicans will surely press to move some of the appropriations around: Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said he wants to move money to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to address the home mortgage crisis and families facing foreclosure.
The wind energy fight has blossomed into more of a battle than many had expected — especially among Democrats.
At issue is how best to help the industry, which has enjoyed a generous production tax credit to help attract investors. In today’s economy, when investors have less income to protect, such credits are harder to monetize unless they’re made refundable or are substituted by what amounts to a cash grant program from the Energy Department.
Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), on the House Ways and Means Committee, helped shepherd through such a grant approach, but the Senate Finance Committee has so far resisted, in part because of opposition from Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).
Instead, the Senate has proposed an investment tax credit that can be carried back and applied against past tax years, when investors had more income. The longer the carry-back, the more this provision is worth, and Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican and ally of the wind industry, served notice Monday that he will try to extend what the Democrats have proposed.
Gregory Wetstone of the American Wind Energy Association said his group is still hoping to get a grant provision, similar to the House bill. But critics argue that this amounts to a cash entitlement for the producers and is too expensive for the public.
“Developers are racing to build wind turbines in the middle of Nowhere, USA, requiring extensive and expensive new transmission development, and we are not assured that the power generated will meet our load demands, given that wind typically produces off peak, at night, and in the winter,” said Lisa Linowes of the Industrial Wind Action Group.