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Promises to be put to test

December 18, 2008|Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama's call for speedy adoption of a massive spending plan to "jolt" the economy will prove an early test of two major promises: that he will work in a bipartisan style with a skeptical Republican Party, and that he will purge the federal budget of wasteful projects.

Even conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill predict that, in the end, a substantial stimulus package will pass. Job losses and a deepening recession demand a quick infusion of money, they say.

But Republicans in the Senate, even with their ranks diminished, still possess leverage to tailor a package that fits certain specifications. They want public hearings on the stimulus, even if it thwarts Democratic ambitions to present the bill to Obama for his signature when he is sworn in to office Jan. 20. And they insist that the bill be scrubbed of projects that, in their view, are aimed more at appeasing interest groups than creating jobs.

When the new Congress convenes on Jan. 6, Senate Democrats will still lack the 60-vote majority needed to stave off GOP delay tactics -- a reality that gives Republicans some confidence that they can win concessions.

Obama has identified the stimulus package as an urgent priority. His economic advisors are considering a package of no less than $600 billion and potentially as much as $1 trillion over two years, according to the transition office.

The fate of the bill could shape the course of Obama's presidency. If it works, it could help lift the economy out of recession, giving him the space to enact his ambitious energy, education and healthcare plans.

Behind him is a formidable array of interest groups eager to see a major national spending program unleashed. Business groups and organized labor, mayors and governors -- all will be pressing lawmakers to pass Obama's spending plan.

For her part, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has touted a $600-billion plan that would include the middle-class tax cut Obama laid out during the campaign.

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, said in an interview Wednesday that he wanted to see Obama sign the bill on the day he is sworn in. In talks with his congressional delegation, Corzine said, he learned that the "goal is to have something on the president's desk on Inauguration Day."

Republicans are watching to see whether Obama will ignore them in his zeal to achieve the first victory of his presidency. Were that to happen, they caution, it could perpetuate political divisions and set a sour tone for the next four years. Republicans and conservative interest groups also want Obama to resist pressures to lard the bill with needless projects.

"I'm concerned that politics and pet projects will end up being as much or more of a significant consideration than what I think should be the acid test, which is what will have the most stimulus and the quickest impact," said Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). He added: "We can try to use our position of slightly more than 40 votes to shape legislation."

Obama's methods may prove a revealing window into his governing style. Pushing for legislation by Inauguration Day would allow for just two weeks of public debate on a bill that could cost as much as the entire Iraq war.

Republicans would like to see the timetable slowed and more debate encouraged -- which they argue would also be in keeping with the transparent and inclusive style Obama embraced as a candidate for president.

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said: "There has to be transparency for a bill that big. If it gets to be $800 billion to $900 billion, it's bigger than any single bill in the history of the country. It's going to take some work and need some oversight, and nobody's really talking about that right now."

Demanding that the bill be passed by Inauguration Day, he said, "is a pretty big ask."

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said: "If their first action right out of the gate is to pass a massive government spending bill without Republican input and with few, if any, Republican votes, that will certainly be contrary to the spirit that the president-elect campaigned on."

Though no stimulus bill has yet been drafted, Republicans are wary of some of the proposals put forward by groups that are talking to Obama's transition team. They cite a report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors listing myriad projects cast as vehicles to create jobs and boost the economy. Those include a dog park in Hercules, Calif.; a bike path in San Diego; and a $1.5-million push to curb prostitution in Dayton, Ohio.

"My fear is it will be a tool for all kinds of pet spending projects, for wasteful pork barrel projects and redistribution of wealth," said Pat Toomey, president of Club for Growth, which promotes fiscal conservatism.

Toomey said the group may run ads opposing the stimulus package.

Grover Norquist, a Washington anti-tax activist who has been at the hub of conservative policymaking in the Bush years, said the package should be posted on the Internet for a minimum of 10 days so that Americans have a chance to inspect it and look for dubious projects.

Obama can count on an outside alliance that includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Assn. of Manufacturers, and such Republican governors as Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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