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Despite Obstacles, Stimulus Will Get Done

Reading the coverage today of the Senate's plans to tinker with the economic stimulus package, it's easy to get caught up in the idea that divisions on a host of issues could end up stalling the entire bill.

With the House having approved the plan by an overwhelming margin yesterday, the Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to take up its own version of the bill at 2:30 p.m. today. The Senate bill would change the structure of the rebates contained in the House measure and would also add an extension of unemployment benefits.

Senators are lining up with other ideas. Some want to add money for highway infrastructure projects, others are looking to tack on cash for home heating assistance, a few are backing a plan to send more Medicaid money to the states, and renewable energy incentives and more mortgage relief will also likely be in the mix.

All of those ideas will increase the size of the package and add to the federal debt.

But despite the eagerness in the Senate to make the bill into a Christmas tree, and the fragility of the current bipartisan backing behind the House bill, the stimulus will eventually get to President Bush's desk, and he'll sign it.

Here's why: Over the last few weeks, Bush and members of Congress from both parties have said repeatedly that the economy is sliding rapidly downhill and that this legislation is needed urgently. Voters seem to agree. In aNBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken a week ago, respondents picked "job creation and economic growth" as the federal government's top priority, well-ahead of Iraq, health care, illegal immigration and other hot-button issues.

Having helped convince the public that there is a serious problem, neither Republicans nor Democrats can get away with not addressing it. This is not a zero-sum game: No one wins if the stimulus falls apart.

More importantly -- and this is extremely rare -- Bush and the top four Congressional leaders from both parties are all united behind the idea of getting a stimulus bill done quickly.

The House bill was negotiated between the White House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) without the input of Senate leaders. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has suggested his chamber should move quickly on the measure, though with at least a few add-ons, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has called for the Senate to simply take the House bill and move it without amendments.

Now, the Senate is not known for speed. Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has a long-established habit of frustrating his party leaders, most memorably when he backed Bush's first round of tax cuts in 2001. So Baucus will add some provisions his fellow Democrats don't like, while also tacking on pieces that might please Democrats and alienate Republicans. More amendments will find their way onto the bill on the floor.

That will lengthen the process of getting a bill through the Senate, and eventually, through a conference process with the House. But while the stimulus may take longer to get done than Bush and lawmakers want - it could well slip past the leaders' self-imposed Feb. 15 deadline - the betting here is that it will get done. If it doesn't, everyone loses.

By Ben Pershing  |  January 30, 2008; 11:08 AM ET
Categories:  Agenda , Purse Strings  
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