WASHINGTON – House Democrats and Republicans pushed dueling economic aid plans Monday as they jockeyed for political advantage on addressing a crisis that is shaping the last weeks of a high-stakes election.
Democrats scheduled hearings to consider a postelection stimulus package that could cost as much as $150 billion. Republicans, spooked by an issue that has damaged their presidential nominee John McCain as well as GOP House and Senate candidates, searched for traction in the debate, calling for more tax cuts and energy exploration to stabilize the economy.
Leaders of both parties appeared eager to pivot, three weeks from Election Day, from backing a $700 billion bailout for Wall Street firms, to advocating more economic aid for their constituents.
"We're at a time where we have to tighten our belt, take ourselves into survival mode," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., after a meeting with economic experts at the Capitol. "We plan to go forward expeditiously, but not hastily" after being "steamrolled" on the financial industry rescue.
Pelosi would not put a pricetag on the package, but she said it might have to be larger than a $61 billion bill that passed the House mostly along partisan lines last month but died in the Senate. She has said a plan costing $150 billion is needed.
Extending jobless benefits and spending federal money on infrastructure projects like roads and bridges, as well as sending food aid to the poor and money to states to pay their Medicaid bills, are "priorities," Pelosi said. She did not rule out sending another round of tax rebates to follow the $600-$1,200 checks most individuals and couples received through the stimulus package enacted in February.
In a letter to Pelosi, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said he agreed "wholeheartedly that Congress should take additional measures to get our economy back on track, and we should not wait until January."
But Boehner said none of the Democrats' ideas would stabilize the economy, and called their approach "irresponsible." Republicans are instead calling for corporate and investment tax cuts, more energy exploration, and federally insuring 100 percent of bank transaction accounts, among other measures.
GOP leaders, who were initially planning to insist that Congress return before Nov. 4 to pass an aid package, scrapped that idea just before releasing their proposal. Kevin Smith, Boehner's spokesman, said the switch was made "to put a premium on the merits of the policy proposals we're putting forth."
The swift about-face highlighted the tricky politics Republicans are facing, as they work to show a sense of urgency on addressing economic woes that are largely associated with their own party's president.
It also pointed up a stark difference between congressional Democrats, who are coordinating with presidential nominee Barack Obama on the stimulus measure, and Republicans, who were pushing their own proposal even though McCain on Monday shelved plans to call for new tax cuts or other measures to bolster the economy.
Democrats, increasingly confident of capturing the White House and increasing their congressional majorities, could call Congress into a lame-duck session shortly after the elections to start work on a stimulus bill. That would allow the package to become law much sooner than it would if it had to wait the customary two months — sometimes longer — that it takes for a new Congress and new president to begin turning out legislation.
On the other hand, a postelection session might limit Democrats' ability to get what they want in a stimulus measure, since they would have to negotiate with President Bush, who's in office until January, and Senate Republicans, who could block it.
"Losing an election rarely has a good effect on one's personality. It doesn't generally make a person more agreeable," said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the Financial Services Committee chairman.
And Democrats signaled that their appetite for another bipartisan negotiation with the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress is waning.
Pelosi noted that bailout measure was a Republican idea — proposed by the Bush administration — pushed through with mostly Democratic votes.
"If it's going to happen that way, we might as well write the bill ourselves and do the right thing for the American people," she said.