January 09, 2009 |
|The Democratic-led Congress is moving to assert control over President-elect Barack Obama's plan to revive the U.S. economy, posing an early challenge that could define his relationship with Capitol Hill, where the resurgent Democratic Party has strengthened majorities in the House and Senate.|
Before this week, the sweeping two year plan had been closely held. Top Obama aides, including economic adviser Jason Furman and National Economic Council director-designate Lawrence Summers, hammered out specifics with Democratic congressional leaders, amid hopes for a rapid vote this month, perhaps even by Inauguration Day. But the newly sworn-in lawmakers of the 111th Congress began questioning specifics of the plan, and dashed expectations for a quick vote.
Some of the strongest objections can be found within Mr. Obama's own party. Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D., N.D.) raised doubts Thursday about the job-creating value of Mr. Obama's proposed $500 payroll tax holiday, which he scoffed would only put $20 a week in a worker's paycheck.
"How much lift is that going to give?" he said. "I don't think there's much bang for the buck there." Sen. Conrad urged greater emphasis on initiatives that will to shore up the housing market, among other things. "We don't have unlimited money," he said. "We've got to target."
Also Thursday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) questioned Obama proposal to reward businesses with a $3,000 tax credit for every job they create. "There's just not a lot of history of that working very well," said Sen. Wyden, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which will be a starting point for the stimulus package on Capitol Hill. He suggested that infrastructure spending would have a "much bigger economic" impact, and cited a specific need for investments in high-speed rail.
As concerns are coming to the forefront, the timetable for action on the broader plan is slipping, with party leaders and Mr. Obama now aiming for enactment by mid-February.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) threatened Thursday to cancel a planned congressional recess in February to ensure the package is completed.
But meeting the deadline could be difficult. Rather than going directly to the House floor, as originally planned, the package will now originate in several congressional committees, including the tax-writing House Ways and Means panel. Moreover, the chances are strong that the House and Senate will approve differing versions of the package, requiring end-game negotiations over a compromise bill, and a second round of floor votes.
In meantime, Democratic leaders are accelerating action on a popular children's health initiative, which President Bush opposed. The hope is to push the children's health measure through in the next couple of weeks, handing Mr. Obama an early victory and underscoring the changing of the guard in Washington.
For Mr. Obama, who takes office on Jan. 20, the doubts emerging on Capitol Hill pose an immediate challenge, with somewhat conflicting goals. Not only must he rein in lawmakers who want to add potentially costly items to the package, as the expense of his own initiatives, but he must win over deficit hawks aghast at its cost and fearful of the long-term implications for U.S. fiscal policy.
Over the long term, the unfolding fight could begin to define how Mr. Obama, the former Illinois senator, deals with his old colleagues in Congress. During much of his eight years in office, President George W. Bush sparred with Congress over which branch of government should set the national agenda, and Mr. Obama, who will enter office this with strong credibility, will likely be buffeted by pent up demand among lawmakers for more a assertive role in shaping policy.
On Thursday, Mr. Obama dispatched Mr. Summers to the Senate to confer with rank-and-file Democrats, and Mr. Summers will return Friday to talk to House Democrats.
In an interview, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D., Mont.) said he called Mr. Summers early Thursday to give him a heads-up that there are "some concerns that need to be addressed." The chairman played down the emerging the divisions, stressing there is broad support, across both political parties, for taking action to combat the recession.
"There's unity on the objective," he said. Sen. Baucus added changes will likely be made to the Obama plan -- he suggested energy-production provisions are likely to be strengthened -- and said there's likely some hard fighting ahead before the measure clears Congress.
"Clearly, it's going to be difficult," he said.
By GREG HITT