WASHINGTON – President Bush's visit to Capitol Hill Wednesday did not yield the results he hoped for: getting a deal on the economic stimulus bill that has stalled in the Senate.
Bush is trying to get the Senate to pass a stimulus plan that incorporates most of the tax incentives for businesses and individuals favored by Republicans with a compromise on unemployment assistance to the tune of $30-$35 billion.
The problem for the president, however, is convincing Senate Democratic leaders that the centrist plan he favors — and that is supported by Democratic Sens. John Breaux of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Zell Miller of Florida — offers the best means of distributing money to unemployed workers.
"This bill can pass both bodies," Bush said, flanked by the centrist trio. "They have proposed a very constructive, real plan."
Bush said significant support exists but Democrats say the votes aren't there to clear a 60-vote procedural hurdle that Democrats opposed to the bill would mount.
"We have always wanted to get an agreement, but we also believe a bad deal is worse than no deal at all," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Bush wants tax credits for the unemployed to use in purchasing health insurance. Democrats want subsidies to allow laid-off workers to continue to receive any health insurance they had on the job. Additionally, they want funds for Medicaid to cover individuals who lacked health insurance.
The problem with the Democratic plan, according to the White House, is that it would provide benefits to workers who took retirement packages even before the downturn.
"Under the bipartisan plan the president is proposing, 100 percent goes to those who have lost their jobs," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "Under the Senate Democratic leadership plan, less than half would go to laid-off workers. More than half goes instead to those who either take an early retirement or voluntarily leave their job. The president thinks it's more important to target with more money those who need the help because they have been laid off."
To Democrats, the GOP approach would throw jobless people on the mercy of the marketplace, where they could be denied coverage for pre-existing conditions or be forced to pay exorbitant premiums.
On Wednesday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said that Republicans will never get the tax credit for health care that they want, but that doesn't mean the deal is dead.
"Once they come to that realization, then I believe we'll be able to solve these other problems," Baucus said.
With the Christmas break drawing near, the two sides have agreed on most other elements of the bill, in particular an additional 13 weeks of unemployment benefits for workers laid off since the March 15 onset of the recession, and income tax rebates of $300 for individuals and $600 for couples who did not receive them earlier this year because they did not pay income taxes.
A general agreement has also been reached on accelerating tax cuts from the 27 percent rate to 25 percent, effective Jan. 1. Any bill would also have a package of tax breaks designed to help businesses, allowing them to write off the costs of their expenses more rapidly and granting relief from the alternative minimum tax, which can fall on companies that lose money.
Republicans have also agreed to a Democratic provision authorizing $15 billion in tax-exempt "Liberty bonds" to spur recovery and rebuilding in the area around the demolished World Trade Center.
Disagreements among lawmakers have resulted in House Republicans bringing a second, alternative stimulus bill to the floor for a vote, expected late Wednesday. The first — a $100 billion bill passed in October — has been all but scrapped since the impasse began.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and Jim Angle and The Associated Press contributed to this report.