Obama Wins Support, Skepticism On Stimulus

President Barack Obama scored his first legislative victory earlier this week when the House approved an $819 billion economic stimulus package. He was, however, unable to gain the support of a single Republican in the House of Representatives. Two congressmen, who voted for and against Obama's plan, defend their stance.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, our regular Friday features: In our Faith Matters conversation, President Barack Obama says he wants to get past the same old fights over values issues like abortion. We ask a prominent evangelical leader if that's possible. My conversation with Reverend Jim Wallace is in just a few minutes. But first, our political chat.

Today, we focus on the economic stimulus package. Earlier this week, the House approved $819 billion in government spending and tax cuts aimed at getting the deteriorating economy moving again. The president says he expects the package will save or create 3 million jobs in the next few years. The House vote is seen as the first major legislative victory for the president, but it was a victory that came without any support from Republicans, something the president said he wanted and had lobbied to get. Now, as the fight moves to the Senate next week, we decided to check in with two members of Congress to talk about the debate over the bill.

Congressman Keith Ellison is a Democrat representing Minnesota's 5th District. He supported the bill. Scott Garrett is a Republican representing New Jersey's 5th District. He voted against the bill. Both are members of the House Financial Services Committee. Welcome to you both. Thanks so much for joining us.

Representative E. SCOTT GARRETT (Republican, Wantage, New Jersey; Member, House Committee on Financial Services): It's good to be here.

Representative KEITH ELLISON (Democrat, Minneapolis, Minnesota; Member, House Committee on Financial Services): Great to be here, Michel.

Rep. GARRETT: Thank you.

MARTIN: Before we get to the politics, I wanted to deal with the substance. Keith Ellison, as briefly as you can, if you could tell us why this bill was worthy of your support and the taxpayers' money? What about the measure makes you think this is the right move for the country?

Rep. ELLISON: This was a right move, Michel, because it had several features which will have a very strong stimulative effect for the economy - for example, infrastructure development, which included money for transit, for broadband expansion and access. Also, other features which have very strong stimulative effects like food stamps, like extension of unemployment benefits. These things are really what the economy needs right now, will put food on Americans' tables, and will put Americans back to work.

MARTIN: Scott Garrett, you voted against the bill. Is your objection mainly ideological, in that you just don't buy the fundamental premise that government spending can stimulate the economy? Or is it you think the bill is spending on the wrong things?

Rep. GARRETT: I guess the latter of those two. It's not ideological; it's practical. I was very heartened the other day, when President Obama came to the Capitol and then came and sat down - or stood there - and spoke with the Republican conference, you know, extended a hand to us, and we extended one right back, saying, well, we want to work with you; we want the economy to move ahead in a positive manner. Now, let's see where there's common ground on issues that we believe can really get the economy going. But you know, take the infrastructure item that was just raised. Out of this whole $800 or $900 billion that we're spending, there was a lot of talk about infrastructure, roads and bridges and the like. But golly, there was only - around 3 percent of the actual dollars will be going out for roads and bridges. So, if we're going to do, you know, infrastructure, let's make that a portion of it - a large portion of it. But here, it was just such a tiny fraction that, obviously, that's not going to get the job done.

MARTIN: So, you think more should have gone to infrastructure. What should there had been less of, in your view?

Rep. GARRETT: Well, there was lots - obviously, if it's 3 percent, that means 97 percent was going to other things. And CBO, which is, as you know, the Congressional Budget Office, came out with their projections, saying that the bulk of the money actually won't get out there to the taxpayers, to businesses, to start stimulating the economy until - let's see - I think 4th of July not this year, but next year. So, you'll be having your 4th of July picnic a year from now, hoping that the economy gets turned around, and it'll only be by then that the bulk of the money will actually be going out of the Washington door. That's not a way to stimulate the economy. That's just the way to push things down - kick the can down the road.

MARTIN: Keith Ellison, what do you say to that?

Rep. ELLISON: Well, I think that 75 percent of the money will have an immediate stimulative effect. Obviously, not all the money will hit at the same time, but this package is going to have a very strong stimulative effect. My complaint with Republicans, though, is that if you really believe that you would support this bill if it had greater infrastructure-development money in it, come along with us and say, let's cut some of the portion of this bill that's devoted to tax cuts; let's put more money into infrastructure. I don't disagree with my colleague on that point. I wish we did have more. But you know what? We're in a position where we need to pass a stimulus bill. I think the president and the House leadership was trying to reach out Republicans with these tax cuts, but none of them bought it anyway. So, I think we should just go ahead and get the bill that we really want.

MARTIN: Keith Ellison, I wanted to ask you, as a Democrat, do you share the president's interests in having Republican votes? Do you care that no Republicans supported the president's package?

Rep. ELLISON: Um, not really, Michel. I do like the idea of bipartisan support, but I don't think it should come at the expense of a good bill. Quite frankly, I'm a little worried that as we try to reach out to Republicans and give them the tax cuts that they clamored for, that it will diminish the stimulative effect of the bill and then, when it doesn't work as effectively as it could, then they'll say, well, see? It didn't work; we shouldn't have done it at all. My thought is, let's get the most - the biggest-bang bill we can, and then when it works, then maybe they'll be persuaded to support policies for the average working American.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Congressman Scott Garrett of New Jersey about the economic stimulus package. Congressman Garrett, what about that? There are those who would argue that the Republicans are just being obstructionists; they'd rather have the fight.

Rep. GARRETT: Well, actually, I appreciate, you know, Keith's honesty here. I think that reflects, maybe, what the difference is between the House majority and President Obama. President Obama says, from day one until today, that he wants to reach out to the other side of the aisle, work with us and the like. Keith's comment, and then Speaker Pelosi, who runs the House, really goes in the other direction. The whole process on this legislation going through, in the House, at least, was to exclude and not involve Republicans in the process, and that's why we really did appreciate the fact when President Obama came and spoke to us and so, would listen to us on these things because we believe, you know, we represent just about half of America, and we do have some sides on it. An interesting thing was this really wasn't a party-line vote. Remember, there was bipartisan opposition to the legislation.

MARTIN: Well, 11 Democrats voted for the bill.

Rep. GARRETT: Excuse me.

MARTIN: Two-forty-four for the measure, 188 against. Eleven Democrats voted against the bill.

Rep. GARRETT: Exactly.

MARTIN: So...

Rep. GARRETT: There were Democrats and Republicans who voted no, and there were only Democrats voting yes. So, it was bipartisan opposition, but only in the House at least, only the Democrats voted for it. So, I think that reflects that as far as us trying to work together in the House, we're given that shot. We just wish that Speaker Pelosi would just, you know, listen to President Obama and say, let's open up the process a little more and take our two cents a little bit here and there, that we can have some say on this - not say, but our input, really.

MARTIN: What are you hearing from constituents, Keith Ellison? What are you hearing?

Rep. ELLISON: Here's what I'm hearing. I'm hearing that in our state of Minnesota, which traditionally has had a lower rate of unemployment than the national average, we now have a rate of unemployment that's 6.9 percent and climbing. We have a 22-percent high unemployment rate here in Minnesota, and we have an unemployment rate that exceeds national average or is very close to it. You know, I was at a - I had a community forum last night and I asked folks, you know, would raise your hand if you know someone who's been laid off? And I'd say two-thirds of the room, maybe three-quarters of the room, raised their hand. And I said, who of you are worried about being laid off? And everybody raised their hand, nearly every one. And so, you know, there's a lot of anxiety. We've got to do something to spur consumer confidence, to get people really feeling like better days are coming. And so, you know, I want to say that I'm all in favor of, you know, getting votes from both sides of the aisle. But at the end of the day, we cannot try to water down a program so much just to get that bipartisan support, when what we really need is a bill that's going to put a lot of pop in the economy and get people working, and get food on the table for folks.

MARTIN: Scott Garrett, what are you hearing?

Rep. GARRETT: This has been the most outpouring on any issue since I've been in office, and I've been here now for six years. Remember, we had the immigration issue a couple years ago, when the phones were off the hook in the Senate and the House when that was coming down. We had the TARP Program back in a month - back in September, and phones were off the hook. I did a telephone town hall, which reaches out to thousands of people the day - night before. Every single person on the call was talking about this issue, and the interesting thing about this - this was pretty neat - was the question almost every other person had was, how do I get involved? How do I get my message out there? How do I get, you know, involved, basically, because I'm so opposed to it, is what they were saying. I've never had that on any other issue, that people had so much opposition to this bill coming down.

Yes, everybody understood that we're hurting. Yes, everybody is anxious. Yes, everybody is worried about the situation. But you know, the people realize that what got us into this problem was too much debt, that, you know, people borrowed too much, corporations borrowed too much, the federal government borrowed too much. They were in a hole financially, and the old saying goes, when you're in a hole, the best way to get out of it is not - is to stop digging. And we're already $1.2 trillion in debt, as you and I talk here today, and this is going to add another trillion dollars to debt. So, people realize that's not the way to go. There's a better way to solve this problem.

MARTIN: Very briefly, we only have a minute and a half left, Scott Garrett. What would you like to see now? What's the - what are your ideas?

Rep. GARRETT: Well, we still have - I mean, I think we still have an opportunity here to make - craft this bill into - craft the reform into a better solution than we have here, and the way to do that is not as perpetuating the problem of the past. The way to do it is to really put people back to work. The way to do it is to have jobs created in this country, whether it's in the auto sector or the manufacturing sector and the like...

MARTIN: Through tax cuts? That's your primary concern, is tax cuts or...

Rep. GARRETT: That certainly is a large part of it. The other portion of it is to address the fact there we're already a billion and two in debt and so, let's not go more into debt. So, hold the reins. Just like a family has to be holding their reins right now and not going into more debt, my gosh, you know, Washington should begin to live by that means as well.

MARTIN: OK. Keith Ellison, final thought from you? What needs to happen now?

Rep. ELLISON: Well, what needs to happen is that this stimulus package is an initial jolt to the economy, but we need long-term reform. What got us into this mess is a philosophy of deregulation, markets not having any proper oversight or monitoring. We've got to stop that. The idea that poor people have too much money, and rich don't have enough and with these big tax cuts for the wealthy, that's what we've got to get away from.

MARTIN: Keith Ellison is a Democrat representing Minnesota's 5th District. He was kind enough to join us from Minnesota Public Broadcasting in St. Paul. Scott Garrett is a Republican. He represents New Jersey's 5th District in the United States Congress. And he joined us on the line from a Republican members' retreat in Homestead, Virginia. They are both on the House Financial Services Committee. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Rep. GARRETT: Thank you.

Rep. ELLISON: Thank you.

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