Economic Package Stimulates Quests For Change

The Senate has taken up its version of President Obama's economic stimulus plan. The package currently totals nearly $900 billion. Critics say the current proposal is loaded with too much non-stimulus spending.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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And I'm Renee Montagne.

The Senate is considering the nearly $900 billion economic stimulus package this week, and lawmakers may make some small changes or they may reshape it substantially. In the House, a similar bill passed last week and it didn't get a single Republican vote.

President Obama would like to at least get some bipartisanship in the Senate, but that may require some compromises. NPR's David Welna has this report.

DAVID WELNA: In his new role as conciliator-in-chief, President Obama gave a quick nod to reality yesterday in the Oval Office. There are, he said, still some differences between congressional Democrats and Republicans when it comes to the stimulus, that gigantic package of tax cuts and spending he's betting the nation's economic recovery on.

BARACK OBAMA: What we can't do is let very modest differences get in the way of the overall package moving forward swiftly.

WELNA: To hear Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell tell it, the problem isn't his fellow Republicans, rather it's the president's fellow Democrats.

MITCH MCCONNELL: Republicans agree with President Obama that we should trim things out that don't put people back to work. The standard he set for this bill is pretty simple and easy to understand. He wanted to incorporate good Republican ideas and trim the fat that won't put people to work right now. I think that's a pretty good principle.

WELNA: McConnell wants to change the Senate stimulus package this week in two ways. First he wants all marginal tax rates of 15 percent cut down to 10 percent, and all 10 percent tax rates slashes to five percent. The Republican leader also wants to let qualified borrowers refinance their mortgages at 4 percent interest rates, all in the name of alleviating the housing crisis.

Republicans have begun sounding a populist note by pointing to the lack of relief for housing woes as a major deficiency in the stimulus package. Here's Thad Cochran, the appropriation committee's top Republican.

THAD COCHRAN: We should address the housing problem that seems to be the central problem in this crisis. We should not, however, rush headlong into fiscal commitments that may haunt us from years to come.

WELNA: But fiscal commitments, which most people would call government spending, account for most of the Senate's stimulus package. And that spending is being fiercely defended by the Democratic chairman of the appropriations committee, Daniel Inouye.

DANIEL INOUYE: Clearly the goal of this package is to find ways to stimulate the private sector through public sector spending, to jumpstart the private sector with much-needed projects that will create jobs as soon as possible.

WELNA: It's the same kind of reasoning Franklin Delano Roosevelt used in his government spending drive to end the Great Depression, and many Republicans still aren't buying it. Here's Nevada's John Ensign.

JOHN ENSIGN: You can't simply spend your way out of a recession or a depression. And you definitely can't restart a struggling economy with wasteful spending.

WELNA: But it's not just Senate Republicans who maintain the stimulus package has too much spending that is not truly stimulative. Nebraska's Ben Nelson is a moderate Democrat who's also critical of the so-called recovery package.

BEN NELSON: I said I can't support it the way it is right now, and my goal is to see it improved to the point where I can. I'm looking to find a way to say yes.

WELNA: Another Democrat, Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad has similar misgivings. He says he met yesterday with a group of nine Senate Democrats and Republicans to try to reshape the stimulus package.

KENT CONRAD: Really trying to reduce things that have less value in terms of stimulus and investment and move into a place where we really know we need the money.

WELNA: Despite the darts being thrown at the stimulus package from both sides of the aisle, President Obama continues scoring victories on Capitol Hill. Last night the Senate voted 75-21 to confirm Eric Holder as his nominee to be the nation's first African-American attorney general. And today Mr. Obama is to nominate Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire to be commerce secretary.

Budget Chairman Kent Conrad laments Gregg's departure as his panel's ranking Republican.

CONRAD: That is a great gain for the Obama administration. It is a great loss for the United States Senate.

WELNA: Gregg, for his part, issued a statement saying he would not leave the Senate if he felt doing so would cause a change in the Senate makeup. That suggests New Hampshire's Democratic Governor John Lynch would name a Republican to replace Gregg.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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