GOP Wants Housing Crisis Addressed In Stimulus
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
President Obama will also be keeping track of the economic stimulus plan that is before the Senate this week. It's facing a stack of amendments. Democratic leaders are prepared to hear out the bill's critics in hopes of winning some bipartisan support. So far, the lawmakers have tossed out a tax break for movie producers and embraced tax credits for those who buy new cars. Now Republicans say they want to deal with the issue that got the economy in trouble in the first place: housing. NPR's Audie Cornish reports from the Capitol.
AUDIE CORNISH: Republicans want to make a lot of changes to the economic stimulus plan, and their arguments tend to sound something like this...
Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): The House bill is an embarrassment. The Senate bill on the floor is not markedly better. Our goal will be to pare it down and to target it right at the problem.
CORNISH: That's Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the problem he wants to target is the housing marking. Republicans say they want to redirect billions of dollars to deal specifically with homeowners. Republican Conference Committee Chair John Ensign.
Senator JOHN ENSIGN (Republican, Nevada): Unfortunately, the housing market is barely addressed in this so-called stimulus bill. Most Americans would tell you it's the first thing that we need to heal. If we made mortgages more manageable, people can stay in their homes and our economy can begin to rebuild.
CORNISH: Now the bill does have a $7,500 tax rebate for first-time homebuyers, but Republicans say that's not enough. So Senator Ensign is introducing an amendment that would encourage banks to let people get new home mortgages, or refinance their existing ones at a federally guaranteed rate of four to 4.5 percent. Ensign says it could save millions of homeowners more than $400 a month.
Sen. ENSIGN: That makes a huge difference to most families, and it would target the problem of oversupply in the housing market, something that we cannot ignore. This is like a permanent tax cut, which economists believe is the best stimulus for our economy, not a one-year tax rebate.
CORNISH: Democrats say they're open to taking on housing in this bill. Here's Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada on Ensign's measure.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): We're willing to take a look at their amendment, see what the cost is and see what the effectiveness of it is.
CORNISH: So far, the cost is estimated to be up to $300 billion. Republican pledges to cap it there aren't making it any more palatable. Democratic Party Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois; Senate Majority Whip): It appears to be something short of solving the problem, and I don't know if this is the appropriate place to do it. But we're certainly open to the notion. I hope that they'll have some concern about mortgage foreclosures, and I don't think his proposal fixes it.
CORNISH: And besides, Democrats say, they have a few ideas of their own. For instance, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd says he'd consider an amendment that offers troubled homeowners a 90-day moratorium on foreclosures. And Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad wants to double that $7,500 tax credit for new home buyers and expand it to all homeowners. It's uncertain how all this will play out. But one thing's for sure: So far, the size of the bill isn't getting any smaller.
Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.
Sen. Baucus Discusses Daschle, Stimulus
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Joining us from Capitol Hill is Senator Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. And who said, yesterday, that he was a little stunned by the withdrawal of Tom Daschle which he called regrettable. Senator Baucus, welcome.
Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana; Finance Committee Chairman): Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: How badly does the withdrawal of Tom Daschle set back the prospect of healthcare legislation?
Sen. BAUCUS: I don't think it sets it back very much at all. Tom Daschle is a terrific fellow - knows, probably, more about healthcare than most anybody else. But there's such momentum now for healthcare reform. The stars seemed so aligned, whether it's people don't have health insurance, or others health costs are so high - there's a convergence here. They get healthcare reform passed this year, and I might add on top of that - and probably even more important - is the President. Barack Obama campaigned of healthcare reform when he was a candidate. I talked with his top staff today. If anything, they're even more urgently moving towards healthcare reform. So, I think we're going to move very quickly. It's my top priority. I'm going to do what I can to get healthcare reform passed this year.
SIEGEL: Alright. Well, give us a reality test here: If there's so much momentum, when do you think we could see a real healthcare reform passed? And when might it then take effect and, actually, have an impact on people's lives?
Sen. BAUCUS: Well, I think we'll get legislation passed this year. Now, the effect of it's going to take some time, because this can take some time to get various components in place, where some of the benefits would be realized. For example, measures like health information technology will spend some upfront money, but the benefits probably won't be realized for a couple, three years later.
SIEGEL: But, in terms of extending health insurance to tens of millions of people who don't have any right now, you think there would be - within two years - do you think number will be cut in half?
Sen. BAUCUS: Well, I think two years will be a bit aggressive. To be conservative, it'd be sometime between, maybe, a year and half and three years before this is all up and going. We'll clearly move as aggressively as we can - also, we can't over-promise. If we want universal coverage as I do - and I think most do - that means doctors, hospitals, nurses, insurance companies, medical equipment manufacturers, everybody - we're all in this together. And there's going to have to be some give and take. And I'm encouraging everybody to keep an open mind.
SIEGEL: But let me put to you what our lead reporter on this story, Julie Rovner, reports, which is that bipartisanship is on the wane, in the Congress right now. She says that the new SCHIP - the children's insurance plan - is law, but a lot of Republicans resent that. They think there are give-backs that have come from - what the compromises they worked out in the last Congress. Do you have the same sense that - to patch things up right now?
Sen. BAUCUS: No, I do not have that sense. The children's health insurance program got a little partisan, because of the inclusion of legal immigrants -was different from the earlier bills. But that is, just, I think, is an aberration. I've had a lot of meetings with a lot of Republicans who very much want healthcare reform this year. I sense that this is not a partisan issue. And I'll do my best to make sure it doesn't become a partisan issue.
SIEGEL: One other front, one last question about the stimulus bill - there too. The president doesn't have 60 votes yet in the Senate, behind the bill. What is something that you think you could part with easily from the bill that came over from the House, in order to bring over perhaps a dozen Republicans? What's one element of that bill that you're willing to say goodbye to?
Sen. BAUCUS: Well, I don't mean to dodge the issue, but, frankly, about 800 billion that is so important and, frankly, the difference between 800 billion total spending over two years, compared with, say, 650 billion over two years amounts, according to the economists, amounts to about a one million difference in jobs.
SIEGEL: But can you see it coming down to a reduced package, just to get something through, and your having to accept that?
Sen. BAUCUS: It might come down slightly. But at the end of the day, I think that, by and large, the legislation that's in the Senate today is going to get passed (unintelligible) 60 votes.
SIEGEL: Senator Baucus, thanks for talking with us.
Sen. BAUCUS: Thank you.
SIEGEL: That's Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.