Obama woos skeptical GOP on stimulus plan

January 28, 2009|By James Oliphant and Janet Hook | James Oliphant and Janet Hook,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Trying to build support for his $825 billion economic stimulus plan before a crucial vote, President Barack Obama traveled to Capitol Hill yesterday but continued to meet a stubborn wall of complaints from Republicans that the cost of the package is unacceptable.

While Republicans praised Obama for listening to their concerns, many said afterward that they will not support the proposal.

With the House set to vote on the proposal today, there seemed little chance that the Republicans, who hold almost no power in the chamber, could have a material impact on the package before it heads to the Senate.

Asked whether the session with Obama had swayed votes, Florida Republican Rep. Bill C.W. Young said, "I doubt that."

"This package has his brand on it, and I don't think he's prepared to change much," Young said.

"I don't think too many Republicans are going to vote for this stimulus package, because most of us don't believe it will work," said California Republican Rep. Devin Nunes after emerging from the early-afternoon meeting with the president.

Still, Obama appeared to be trying to pressure Republicans to get on board. "The main message I have is that the statistics every day underscore the urgency of the economic situation. The American people expect action," the president said between his House and Senate meetings.

"There are some legitimate philosophical differences with parts of my plan that the Republicans have, and I respect that," Obama said. "I don't expect 100 percent agreement from my Republican colleagues, but I do hope that we can all put politics aside and do the American people's business right now."

But even as Obama made the rounds on the Hill, waves of energized Republicans hit the cable airwaves and rolled out news releases condemning the economic plan. They argued that the package contains too much government spending on infrastructure and other projects, and not enough in tax cuts.

And despite Obama's attempts at outreach, they bitterly complained that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, had locked them out of the legislative process.

"Unfortunately, the bill House Democrats are bringing to the floor this week was not developed under any spirit of bipartisanship, and we see the result: an $825 billion omnibus spending package that will do more to satisfy a spending agenda than create jobs in America," said Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina.

Both sides seized on a new Congressional Budget Office report that concluded the bulk of the spending in the plan would come within the first 18 months of its enactment - but that because of interest payments, its total cost would rise above $1 trillion.

Democrats said the report suggested that the economy would receive a quick jolt from the bill. Republicans howled about the cost.

'Slow ... wasteful'

"So we now know that we're going to go out and borrow a trillion dollars and spend it in the form of a stimulus," said Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. "Much of this spending is slow, occurs well after the recession has gone away and is wasteful."

Democrats maintain that only a large-scale investment such as the kind they are proposing can boost the economy, and that a smaller package runs the risk of having little to no effect.

Later in the day, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs hinted that room for compromise on the package still existed. "This is a process that will wind its way through. I don't think today was the beginning or the end, but just part of that process," he said.

Republicans were to meet last night with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and the level of tax cuts in the package was sure to be on the agenda. Gibbs said Obama had told his economic team to evaluate GOP suggestions.

In the Senate, Obama's economic stimulus plan got its first modicum of bipartisan support yesterday as the measure came under scrutiny in two committees. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a $356.6 billion portion of the $825 billion bill by a vote of 21-9, with four Republicans voting in favor. House committees have split strictly along party lines.

The Senate Finance Committee passed its version of the stimulus bill, 14-9. The committee adopted several amendments with bipartisan support, but on the final vote the only Republican to back the bill was Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.

Before clearing the bill, the panel approved a $70 billion addition to the measure: a bipartisan amendment to limit the reach of the alternative minimum tax.

That tax system was established to ensure that wealthy people do not use deductions and loopholes to eliminate their entire tax liability. But in recent years, because the tax was not indexed for inflation, growing numbers of upper-middle-class taxpayers have come within its reach. The amendment would keep about 24 million taxpayers from paying more under the alternative tax.

Signs of compromise

There have been some signs of compromise. Democrats will drop a provision from the House bill that would have made more money available for contraception and family planning services. The compromise deprived Republicans of what was rapidly evolving into an outsized talking point - one they repeatedly invoked - to suggest that the stimulus plan was being shaped by a liberal Democratic agenda.

"The most important thing about this vote tomorrow is keeping the process going ... not to get involved in some Animal House-type food fight on Capitol Hill," Gibbs said.

Despite their opposition to the plan, many House Republicans came away from their meeting with Obama saying that the president had laid the groundwork for future cooperation.

"I thought it was a great gesture on his part, and it begins a dialogue," Ryan said.

More hurdles await economic stimulus package,

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