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Snowballing stimulus bill: It’s ‘a gravy train,’ says Peterson

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the economic stimulus package snowballs to the U.S. Senate today, there are signs of compromise, but no lessening of mass.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As the economic stimulus package snowballs to the U.S. Senate today, there are signs of compromise, but no lessening of mass.

The bill, which passed the House last week at $819 billion, is now estimated to have swelled to roughly $890 billion. While some spending has been axed — $200 million to tidy the National Mall, and millions of dollars for family planning programs and sexually transmitted disease research — the Senate version of the stimulus still includes billions more for tax cuts and a dizzying array of programs.

<strong>Collin Peterson </strong>
Collin Peterson

“This thing has become a gravy train for all these things that have not been funded over the years,” said Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), who was one of 10 House Democrats to vote against the bill last week.

In an interview after the vote, the 7th district Congressman cited the bill’s tax cuts and misaligned spending priorities as reasons for going against his party.

“Bottom line, what I am concerned about is adding to the deficit,” Peterson said. “There are huge amounts of money here  that we are going to have to borrow.”

Among increased spending measures, the Senate bill also includes $69 billion to shield tens of millions of middle-income Americans from the so-called alternative minimum tax. But it will likely be the spending portions of the bill that will be cut this week as Democrats try to woo Senate Republicans, who remained critical of the package on Sunday’s talk shows.

“I can’t believe that the president isn’t embarrassed about the products that have been produced so far,” said Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on CBS’ “Face The Nation.” He mentioned the $600 million for new cars for federal employees and $150 million for honeybee insurance.

“This is nonsense,” he said.

Controversial programs
Other controversial spending still in the bill includes $75 million for anti-smoking programs and $100 million for advanced computer research.

“I think you should take out the social spending that is not going to create jobs… I think we can do it more effectively with less money,” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Senate Democrats suggested on Sunday that they would be open to Republican proposals, including a $15,000 tax credit for all homebuyers and directing more spending toward infrastructure projects.

When asked on “FOX News Sunday” how far the Democrats were willing to go to try to get some Republican buy-in, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Il) replied: “We’re very open, very open to this. For instance, some of the Republicans have been saying to us, ‘Put more money in infrastructure. Invest in the roads and highways and bridges. Make sure that we create good-paying jobs here in America that we can see, whether we’re dealing with mass transit or local infrastructure or wastewater treatment.’ You’re going to see an amendment that does exactly that.”

Transit spending
That would please some Minnesotans, including Democrat Jim Oberstar, chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Oberstar had lobbied hard to get more money for transportation and infrastructure into the House version of the stimulus. The Senate’s bill currently includes an additional $2 billion for high-speed rail, but an overall net decrease in funding for transit.

Despite the hubbub over spending, however, no one has announced a filibuster threat just yet, and it looks like Senate Democrats are going to be making a considerable effort to keep it that way.

Only 10 working days remain before President Obama’s self-imposed mid-February signing deadline — a cut off that will be used as a key measure of his effectiveness and ability to steer the country during its worse economic recession in the last 50 years.

Norman Ornstein
Norman Ornstein

Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said that much will ride on the Democrats getting more support from Senate Republicans than they did in the House where no Republicans voted for the stimulus.

“It is partly because it is Obama’s desire, but the impact of the stimulus package is also psychological. The broader the support, the greater the confidence boost to the nation,” said Ornstein. “Secondly, the more Republican senators they [the Democrats] get, the more pressure they put on the House Republicans to change their behavior.”

Cynthia Dizikes covers Minnesota’s congressional delegation and reports on issues and developments in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at cdizikes [at] minnpost [dot] com.