RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
One pending bill that's been largely overlooked involves health insurance for children. The plan is formally known as the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP. Congressional leaders have scheduled a vote today to renew it. I sat down with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in her office on Capitol Hill to talk about SCHIP and the wider legislative agenda.
MONTAGNE: Thank you for joining us.
Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): My pleasure, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Congress passed an extension of the Children's Health Insurance Program twice, but President Bush vetoed it both times. To pass the bill now would be even more expensive. How do we pay for this now that America is facing a $1.2 trillion deficit?
Representative PELOSI: The bill has always been paid for. When we presented it to President Bush two times, he said we couldn't afford the bill. And it is paid for largely by a 61-cent tax on each pack of cigarettes.
MONTAGNE: Although the National Association of Tobacco Outlets says raising the cigarette tax even for a good cause like this would cost jobs.
Representative PELOSI: Well, it will improve health, is what it will do. The 61 cents on a pack of cigarettes, while it seems like a lot, is a small price to pay for over 10 million children in America being insured.
MONTAGNE: Now SCHIP will be separate from the big stimulus package that's being proposed. President Obama is considering a stimulus package that over two years would reportedly cost something in the neighborhood of $775 billion. As reported, this 300 billion would go to tax cuts. Would congressional Democrats accept 40 percent of a stimulus package going to tax cuts?
Representative PELOSI: I think it's more like two-thirds, one-third. And that's probably appropriate as long as the tax cuts are those which stimulate the economy, which give a tax cut to the middle class, not the wealthiest people in America. But there is no question that investments create jobs faster and bring a bigger bang for the buck, as the economists say. But the tax cuts are also important.
MONTAGNE: Now when you talk about investments, you mean investments in infrastructure. There's talk of, you know, mass transit, bridges, green technology...
Representative PELOSI: Well, physical infrastructure of our country and the human infrastructure of our country. So health and education have a strong piece of this recovery package.
MONTAGNE: Speaker Pelosi, you have been very insistent that there will be no earmarks in this stimulus package.
Representative PELOSI: Absolutely not.
MONTAGNE: As have the Republicans...
Representative PELOSI: That's right.
MONTAGNE: Do you mean that there will be no pet projects snuck in in the middle of the night at the last minute?
Representative PELOSI: Those days are over.
MONTAGNE: Won't the members of Congress, though, still decide which bridges, roads...
Representative PELOSI: No.
MONTAGNE: ...energy projects get funded?
Representative PELOSI: In the economic recovery package, we are going with proposals that we have in general for infrastructure, for innovation, for health care, and for energy independence, and they really are all related. And I said if you want four words to describe this - science, science, science, and science; the science, technology, and engineering to build the infrastructure for the future; the science for the innovation to keep us competitive and number one in the world markets. This is not your - our grandfathers' public works program of the '30s. You will not be able to identify any project in this economic recovery package. There will be no earmarks.
MONTAGNE: Just one last question. Aides to Mr. Obama have suggested in recent days that the president-elect might want to hold off on repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Would congressional Democrats and would you go along with this?
Representative PELOSI: Well, that isn't part of this discussion. That's not part of this national recovery - economic recovery package. Right now we're talking about a certain amount of investments, a certain amount of tax cuts that go with this. That is a completely separate question.
MONTAGNE: Well, the stimulus package aside, were the president-elect to decide that so much has changed since the campaign, the country is in such big economic trouble, that it would at this point in time not be the best thing to...
Representative PELOSI: Well, I think that's a theoretical question. I have not heard that from him. What I will say for myself - and I know I speak for many Democrats in Congress on this score - the biggest contributor to our huge deficit that we have now are the tax cuts of the Bush administration for the wealthiest people in America. We campaigned in 2004, 2006, and 2008, House Democrats, on the idea that these tax cuts were not helping our economy and they must go.
MONTAGNE: Well, back for one last moment on the stimulus package. You've said that this package would be passed before the President's Day recess, which is next month.
Representative PELOSI: If we don't have it by the time of the president's recess, there will be no recess.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.
Representative PELOSI: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi talking to us in her office on Capitol Hill.