WASHINGTON – Though careful not to criticize the commander in chief on the war, Democrats are blasting President Bush for his handling of the economy.
"The president is managing the war well. He is mismanaging the economy with the help of his colleagues in the Senate and House," said House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo.
The root of the Democrats' argument lies in comments Wednesday by the president's chief budget adviser Mitch Daniels, director of the Office of Management and Budget, who said the federal budget will likely run deficits for the next three years.
But the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who wrote the $100 billion economic stimulus package that passed in the House on a narrow party-line vote, said the real problem is the Democrats who are "afraid we're going to come to a conclusion."
"Sounds like a guy who longs for the old days when they were in power, when we had year after year deficits whether we were at war or at peace, and someone who can't stand not being at the center of attention in which they believe that the world revolves around them," Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif, said of Gephardt.
The real battlefield, however, lies in the Senate, where the economic stimulus package has been stalled for two weeks.
The main issues at play include four proposals by Bush: acceleration of income tax cuts, now set to take effect in 2004 and 2006; repeal of the corporate alternative minimum tax; enhanced expensing write-offs for business; and the rebate checks. The discussions also will center on whether to extend unemployment benefits by 13 weeks and help the jobless continue health insurance coverage.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., laid the blame for the impasse on the GOP.
"I am getting to the point where I wonder whether they really want economic stimulus," Daschle said.
But Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said the GOP will not take the blame on the latest holdup. In a bit of reverse psychology, Lott is trying to force Daschle's hand on the stimulus bill by tying the Senate in procedural knots with unrelated amendments on human cloning and the president's energy policy to issues that Daschle wants to bring to the floor for a vote ahead of a stimulus package.
"We have no national energy policy, we're dependent on foreign oil, we have no conservation policy and for six months Tom Daschle has refused to bring it up," Lott said. "That's irresponsible."
House and Senate leaders spent most of Thursday wrangling over how to structure negotiations on economic stimulus legislation, which delayed by at least a day any substantive talks on possible compromises. Conversation focused primarily on who precisely would be in the stimulus negotiating room and whether floor amendments would be allowed on the final product. House Republicans wanted no amendments, but Senate Democrats said their rules would not allow a ban.
After a late-afternoon meeting of Senate Democrats, Daschle said he hoped for agreement on the negotiating process in time for talks on the bill to begin Friday. But talks ended Thursday night without a deal.
The delay triggered a sharply critical reaction from Thomas, who labeled Senate rules "la-la land."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.