Is the Stimulus Package Too Watered Down to Get Us Anywhere?

The next few days will be exceptionally difficult for members of Congress who are serious about renewing the economy.

Skeptical citizens might inquire: How does a Senate stimulus bill that was trimmed to eliminate "waste" (like school construction money that would create jobs in communities across the country) and "pork" (like funding to prepare for a pandemic that would bring a sputtering economy to a complete halt) end up costing almost $20 billion more than a supposedly spendthrift House plan?

The answer, of course, is that the tepid stimulus plan passed Tuesday by the Senate with a "bipartisan" 61-37 majority was not trimmed down to hold the line on spending. It was restructured to cut stimulus allocations by $108 million while dramatically increasing tax cuts -- at the behest of Republican Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and the Democrats with whom these alleged moderates cut a deal to pass the stalled bill.

That fact is what will make the next few days exceptionally difficult for members of Congress who are serious about renewing the economy -- as opposed to playing politics.

The $838 billion Senate bill will have to be reconciled with the more modest $819 billion House bill.

Smart economists will tell you that neither the House or Senate figures are likely to be sufficient to genuinely jumpstart an economy that sheds more jobs, shutters more business and loses more in the way of consumer confidence with each passing day.

But the extent to which the final legislation will have a stimulative effect has yet to be determined.

If House Democrats, who passed an imperfect but more appropriately focused measure, embrace the changes made in the Senate, they will undermine prospects for renewal.

If House Democrats refuse to accept the Senate measure and instead demand the restoration of spending for school construction, bailing out the states, aiding Head Start and Early Start programs and guarding against a potentially devastating pandemic, they could still make a serious dent in the crisis.

There are signs that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, who has grumbled about the school cuts, and Appropriations Committee chair David Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat who essentially wrote the House bill, are prepared to push back.

There are also signs that responsible Democrats in the House will have to battle conservative "Blue Dog Democrats" -- some of whom voted against the House bill several weeks ago, and others who have signaled a sympathy with the Senate compromises.

And what of the Obama White House? The president, who is struggling to be two things at once -- "post-partisan" and effective -- is going to have to make some choices. If he just wants a bill, he can probably lean on the House to get something similar to the Senate plan passed. If he wants a good bill, he will have to help the House push back and lean on some more senators to get serious about what Obama correctly describes as the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression.

John Nichols is The Nation's Washington correspondent.
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