Senators threaten to tinker with stimulus plan


Just when House Democratic leaders and President Bush reach a rare political compromise on an economic stimulus plan, the Senate threatened Friday to rain on their bipartisan parade.

Senators from both parties already were drafting plans, which could increase spending and draw the ire of deficit-minded lawmakers. It also could complicate efforts to get checks in the mail to millions of Americans by late spring.

Sounding the alarm about Senate tinkering, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, "We believe this is a very good, bipartisan compromise, and it would be unfortunate if the Senate did anything to slow it down or blow it up."

Although both chambers are controlled by Democrats, senators are notoriously protective of their prerogatives. "The Senate is not going to willy-nilly rubber stamp what the House does," Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a telephone interview.

Greg Valliere, chief political strategist for the Stanford Group Co. financial services company, said he expected a plan to clear Congress, even if the Senate fiddles with it. "The Senate is notoriously independent and unwilling to be stampeded; this will be no exception," he said.

Still, he expected a package to become law within the next few weeks. "In the final analysis, most lawmakers are aghast to see their public approval ratings at all-time lows. This gives them an opportunity to show they can act quickly &

even the Senate."

In a rare display of bipartisanship, House Democratic and Republican leaders and the president agreed Thursday to a roughly $150 billion plan that would provide tax rebates of as much as $1,200 per household &

plus $300 per child &

as well as business tax breaks to spur investment. Rebates would be phased out gradually for single filers earning more than $75,000 and couples earning more than $150,000 a year.

Both parties made concessions. Republicans backed away from seeking to make President Bush's tax cuts permanent as part of the package and agreed to a Democrat demand to give rebates to workers who earn too little to pay income taxes. Democrats gave up calls to extend unemployment benefits and spend more on food stamps.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, a key negotiator, expressed concern Friday that the compromise could unravel if senators tinker with it too much. "It would be irresponsible for Senate Democrats to load this bill up with pork and other spending," he said.

Bush, speaking at a House GOP retreat in West Virginia, called the package "big enough" to help the economy and urged Congress to pass it as soon as possible "to get money in the hands of the people who are going to help this economy stay strong."

"I strongly believe it would be a mistake to delay or derail this bill," he said.

Senators from both parties say they are just as eager as the president and House leaders to reach a deal. But senators have their own ideas of what should be in the package, including increased spending on unemployment benefits, food stamps, energy assistance to low-income families and aid to states for infrastructure projects.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that one of her concerns about the compromise reached between the House and the White House was that "rebates don't get to the people until May or June. So the Senate should consider extending unemployment insurance and increasing food stamps to get help quickly to those who need it most."

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, a Finance Committee member, said she would push to include an unemployment insurance extension in the final stimulus package.

Baucus, who said he has been discussing his ideas with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, expressed confidence that any changes would help speed passage of the measure through the Senate and get it to the president's desk by mid-February. He expects his committee to take up a bill next week and increase spending "just a little bit."

"These are dollars that are going to be spent, and therefore, help the economy," he said.

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