WASHINGTON – "FOX NEWS SUNDAY" HOST CHRIS WALLACE: Here in Washington, members of the Congress return to work this week, and we — their top priority is passing a huge spending package to jump-start the economy.
Joining us to discuss that and the rest of the Democratic agenda is House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.
Happy new year, Congressman. And welcome back to "FOX News Sunday".
HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER STENY HOYER, D-MD.: Thank you, Chris. Happy new year to you.
WALLACE: President-elect Obama comes here to Capitol Hill tomorrow to meet with congressional leaders of both parties. How quickly can Congress get this economic stimulus package through and to Mr. Obama's desk?
HOYER: Well, I think we have two criteria — do it as quickly as possible, but do it right, and do it so the American people know what we're doing, do it so that members of Congress are confident of the action that we're taking.
So those are the two criteria — do it as quickly as possible, but do it right. I think that time frame is hopefully certainly by the end of the month.
WALLACE: Well, let's talk more specifically about that. The Obama team is talking about a package of up to $775 billion. Is that your upper limit? Because there's talk that some House Democrats might want to make it even bigger, closer to $1 trillion.
HOYER: Well, I think we've been talking in that neighborhood. And I'm not going to set a figure on it, Chris. But clearly, it needs to be very substantial.
Every economist from right to left, Republican, Democrat, advises that it has to be a very substantial package if, in fact, we're going to accomplish the objective, which is, of course, to stabilize the economy and try to start bringing it back.
WALLACE: Now, there are reports that House Democrats may push for a vote on this not this week but the next week. Is that something that you have in mind?
HOYER: We had talked about that. I think that's probably going to slip. It's probably going to slip because this has been a complicated effort and a cooperative effort between the Congress and the incoming administration.
And again, we want to do this right. We want to have people know what we're doing, and we want to make sure that we can accomplish the objectives that we see.
WALLACE: So let me — give me a little bit of a timetable.
WALLACE: And I'm not going to — obviously, you don't know exactly what's going to happen. Do you think that the House can pass this before Inauguration Day?
HOYER: Chris, I doubt that, frankly. In talking to Chairman Obey this week, it's going to be very difficult to get the package put together that early so that it can have sufficient time to be reviewed, and then sufficient time to be debated and passed.
But we certainly want to see this package passed through the House of Representatives no later than the end of this month, get it over to the Senate, and have it to the president before we break for the presidential break.
WALLACE: And that's mid-February.
HOYER: Early February, yeah.
WALLACE: So you're talking about this going well — I mean, well into February before you actually...
HOYER: We're going to move quickly. We're going to move as quickly as possible, given our responsibilities to make sure that we're passing a package that will work.
WALLACE: Your counterpart, House Republican leader John Boehner, has laid down what he believes should be several markers for the way that this is handled, and let's put them up on the screen.
There should be public hearings. The plan should be available for the public to review online for one week. And there should be no special interest earmarks.
Congressman Hoyer, are you willing to agree to all of those?
HOYER: Well, it's not a question of agreement. I think all of those are objectives that we'd like to attain. We've all talked about that this is not a bill for special interest earmarks or add-ons. This is a bill to try to create jobs quickly and to invest for long- term economic development and recovery.
So this is both a recovery package and an investment package for the future. So the criteria that Mr. Boehner puts forward are certainly good criterias (sic) and we hope to meet those.
WALLACE: Public hearings?
HOYER: I'm for public hearings and I hope we're going to have public hearings.
But let me say this, which Mr. Boehner ignores. We've had over 20 public hearings since October on this package — not the package that's going to be ultimately put together, but on the elements that are going into this package.
So we've had 20 — over 20 public hearings in five or six different committees.
WALLACE: Let's talk about this question of earmarks, because there's talk that some of the House committees have already passed some of this — in fact, the House passed a big spending package that didn't — this fall which didn't get through the Senate.
Are you going to give the Obama team an informal veto so that — you know, because everybody's idea of an earmark is different, so that if you want to pass something and the Obama team says, "No, no, that would be an earmark," you're going to take it out of the bill?
HOYER: Chris, it is our intention — the leadership, the speaker, myself, Mr. Obey and others — that we do not have a bill on the floor that has specific items — monies going to be distributed largely on formula basis, investing in the future and investing in short-term job creation. This is not a bill that we want to see loaded up with earmarks. And that's not our intent.
And we — in terms of your question about will we give an informal veto to the Obama administration, we are in, and have been over the last few months since the election, extensive discussions with the Obama president-elect, but we're not going to give informal vetoes.
But in the course of discussions, obviously, both parties say, "This we can do and this we can't do."
WALLACE: Let's discuss the rest of your agenda. There's talk that you want to move quickly on what's called low-hanging fruit, to pass some measures that could get bipartisan support and move through Congress quickly — expansion of the State Children's Health Program, or SCHIP.
HOYER: We're looking at — we passed that bill, as you know, through the House handily. It passed through the Senate with two- thirds majority and was vetoed by the president.
We think it's critical to move quickly on ensuring that children in this country have availability of health care. So yes, that's going to be an early bill for us, and I'm not going to put a time frame on it, but I expect to see that bill early.
There are some other things, obviously, we have to do. We're going to complete the '08-'09 appropriations process. That needs to be done early. We're going to address the Lilly Ledbetter and pay equity issues...
WALLACE: That's to give women more time to sue for pay equity.
HOYER: That's correct, and so that women are not precluded, or others are not precluded, from recovering damages simply because they don't know what their fellow employees are making and that they're being discriminated against.
When they find out, they ought to be able to have the opportunity to get redress of that grievance.
WALLACE: Big labor's top priority is what's called union card check, and that would be eliminating the right to a secret ballot in determining whether or not you're going to organize, unionize, a working place.
I love the way that you're smiling already. Are you going to move on that in the first month?
HOYER: I'm smiling because of the way you phrase it. It's the Free Choice Act, of course, and what it does is...
WALLACE: Well, union card check, free choice. Both sides have their best — their euphemisms.
HOYER: Of course, and you used one side. That's why I was smiling.
WALLACE: And you used the other. OK.
HOYER: Well, my point being that we believe that one of the problems that has existed in America is that working people have had a very, very difficult time in getting represented by unions in the workplace.
Workplace has resisted that. The NLRB has not been very vigorous in assuring the lack of unfair labor practices. So we believe that the employees — if over 50 percent of them sign and say, "We want to be represented by a union," they ought to be able to be represented by a union.
Let me say that many, many employers currently under existing law recognize such signatures right now and start to bargain and have a union representative.
WALLACE: Whatever you call it, Congressman, are you going to pass it in the first month?
HOYER: I don't know about the first month, but we're going to pass it early.
WALLACE: You had talked about — when we last talked about this in November, you talked about the possibility of a compromise that would recognize the fact that there should not be unreasonable delays in giving an election, but on the other hand maybe not taking away the secret ballot from workers in a company.
Is there a compromise out there, or are you prepared to take away the secret ballot?
HOYER: Again, let me stress, Chris, nobody's going to take away the secret ballot. The employees currently have and will have the opportunity to opt for a secret ballot. They don't have to sign the card. They can say, "Look, we'll have an election, and we may vote." But they have that choice right now, and they will continue to have that choice.
WALLACE: But you want to pass the bill, just to be clear here, that the — that unions, that labor, AFL-CIO, is talking about the Employee Free Choice Act, which would — which would create a one-step system, a public vote, on whether or not to unionize.
HOYER: Well, a public vote — you mean a signing of the — of the card which says, "I want the union to represent me."
WALLACE: Yes, right.
HOYER: What I have said, and I said on your program and will reiterate, that bill that passed the House handily is certainly going to be the base bill. Will there be discussions? There may well be discussions.
And again, I want to stress nobody is precluding having a secret ballot. What we are saying is that an alternative route will be available. And if employees choose to sign — over 50 percent of the employees sign a card saying, "We want to be represented by the union," that that will be effected.
HOYER: And give me a sense of the time frame? You said maybe not the first month. How soon?
HOYER: Well, I think it will be early. I think it will be early in the year, certainly in the early spring.
Right now, obviously, our major, major focus is getting people back to work, getting our economy moving, making sure that working people can get back to work and we start creating those 3 million jobs that President-elect Obama has talked about. So that's a priority item for us.
WALLACE: Let's move on to another item. Congressman Charles Rangel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes all the tax legislation, has come under new ethics allegations for trying to raise money from AIG, the troubled insurance giant, money to finance a government school at CCNY in his name, at a time when the company has business before his committee.
Now, Rangel has already come under ethical fire and, in fact, the Ethics Committee is investigating. Why, Congressman, shouldn't he step down pending that investigation with all of these charges against him piling up?
HOYER: Well, I think that that's not going to be necessary, and we haven't asked him to do that. The Ethics Committee is — got this matter under consideration.
The speaker has indicated that she is hopeful that the Ethics Committee will complete its work in the very near term. We were hopeful to do it by the end of the last Congress. That didn't happen.
But I'm sure this matter, along with the other matters that have been raised both publicly and privately, will be under consideration and we'll be receiving recommendations from the Ethics Committee hopefully in the near term.
WALLACE: Well, let me — you say the near term. This has been going on a long time, and I want to put up on the screen what you said last September. "There is no reason for him," talking about Rangel, "to step down from his chairmanship. I think we need to find out what the facts are first."
Congressman, that was four months ago.
HOYER: Well, yes, it was four months ago. There have been additional facts. We've had Thanksgiving...
WALLACE: And more charges against him.
HOYER: We've had Thanksgiving. We've had Christmas. And the Ethics Committee members are members of Congress focused on critically important matters. So it's not as if there hasn't been a lot to do.
As I've said, we've had over 20 hearings on the economic package alone. So from that standpoint, Chris, four months — but that was November, Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays. So it's been kind of tough to get that work done.
WALLACE: So can you give us a time line by which you're going to get a decision from the Ethics Committee as to whether...
WALLACE: ... these charges stand up against...
HOYER: As you know, the work of the Ethics Committee is done in private, so I cannot give you a specific time frame. I can tell you that both the speaker and I are very hopeful that this will be done very early on this year.
WALLACE: Finally — we've got about a minute left — will you vote to release the second half of the $700 billion Wall Street or financial rescue package and will you consider doing so, voting to release it, while President Bush is still in office?
HOYER: Yes, I will personally, but I have talked to Chairman Frank yesterday and a lot of members who are all very concerned about two principal items. First of all, I think we're all outraged that Merrill Lynch gets billions of dollars and then one of their executives goes out, after being with them three weeks, and buys a $27 million apartment on Park Avenue.
We need to make sure that we have appropriate constraints in any money that is authorized under the second tranche of the TARP.
Secondly, we need to make sure that we're focused on helping out in the mortgage area, which was the basis of this particular crisis and the onset of this financial crisis.
WALLACE: So do you think this $350 billion...
HOYER: So we need to deal with those. I think Chairman Frank will be bringing legislation to the floor very soon, perhaps as early as the latter part of this coming week, to address those two issues and give authority to the TARP to both give constraints, oversight and mortgage relief.
WALLACE: So, real quickly, do you think this gets passed before or after President Bush leaves office?
HOYER: I think it's possible to pass it before.
WALLACE: Congressman Hoyer, I want to thank you so much for coming in. We did a lot of business today. Thanks for coming in, and please come back, sir.
HOYER: Thank you.