WASHINGTON – The White House and congressional leaders struggled Wednesday to preserve their newfound alliance on the economy in the face of revolts in both parties over the shape of a potential stimulus package and of debates over issues such as health care and warrantless surveillance.
Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., neared agreement Wednesday night on a tentative plan aimed at reinvigorating a battered economy. Pelosi met Wednesday night with committee chairmen while Paulson was running the tentative agreement by the White House ahead of what could be a final meeting today. But there were signs that the bipartisan spirit of recent days was beginning to fray. Some Republican lawmakers tried to slow the momentum toward a deal while Democrats piled on additional spending demands.
At the same time, unrelated disputes threatened to divide President Bush and Democratic congressional leaders at a time when they are seeking to remain unified on the economy. House Democrats tried and failed Wednesday to override Bush’s veto of an expansion of a children’s health care program, while Senate Democrats tried to block the permanent extension of the government’s authority to eavesdrop on terrorism suspects without warrants.
Bush advisers and congressional leaders working on the economic package recognized that they need to hurry not only to influence the economy as soon as possible but also to prevent Washington’s natural partisan dynamics from pulling apart the chances for success. “The longer something sits out there, the more additional things get on the table,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
There were signs that both sides were trying to avoid at least some provocations until an economic package is passed. House Democrats decided to hold off any action on contempt citations against White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers over the investigation of the firings of U.S. attorneys. And Vice President Dick Cheney avoided his usual red-meat attacks in a speech arguing for the surveillance measure.
But some top lawmakers quickly returned to the partisan scrapping of last year. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., called a news conference to denounce the seven years of Bush’s stewardship, which have been marked, he said, by slow job growth, a mounting federal debt, sliding household incomes and a plunging world public opinion of the United States. “By any measure,” he said, “America is worse off today, over the last seven years, than it was as a country that George Bush inherited.”
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., blamed the nation’s economic ills on the Democrat-controlled Congress. “One year into a liberal Democrat majority in Congress, surprise, surprise, the economy is struggling,” he said.
Negotiators tried to ignore the buzz and focus on working out a deal. Paulson met twice Wednesday and spoke by telephone repeatedly with Pelosi and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, to hammer out the details of a roughly $145 billion economic-stimulus package. Aides reported that they made progress but need more time to reach an agreement.
The broad outlines of a package have been clear for days: tax rebates of as much as $800 for individuals and $1,600 for married couples to spur consumer spending, business tax breaks to prompt new investment and the extension of social welfare benefits such as unemployment aid and food stamps. But the two sides are trying to figure out how much and who will benefit.