Agreement closer on economic boost

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Congressional leaders and the Bush administration were close to reaching a deal on a $145 billion economic stimulus package last night as the Treasury Department crunched the numbers on components of the plan, senior House officials said.

"We'll have more to say tomorrow morning," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner. "We're hopeful."

Boehner, an Ohio Republican, made his remarks exiting his third extended negotiating session of the day with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.

On her way into an evening meeting, Pelosi said there had been "tremendous" progress during the day.

"I'm hopeful," she said. "We're still working through."

Democrats said the centerpiece of the plan would be a widely distributed tax rebate, perhaps totaling as much as $96.5 billion, or roughly two-thirds of the total that President Bush has said is needed to help jump-start the economy. Aides cautioned, however, that the numbers were the subject of intense negotiations.

Bush, after meeting yesterday with mayors from across the country, said he was optimistic about reaching swift agreement on a stimulus plan.

"I talked to them about my desire to work with the Congress to get a stimulus package passed, one that's going to be robust enough to affect the economy, simple enough for people to understand it and efficient enough to have an impact," the president said. "And I'm confident that we can get something done."

Democratic leaders said that to speed the economic rescue package, they would mostly bypass the usual committee process. And lawmakers said they were hopeful that they could have the plan approved by mid-February and that it would be sufficient to soften the economic downturn and perhaps forestall a recession.

"One of the principal tenets of the administration and of ourselves is, we have got to do this fast," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat. "To go through the regular process and have hearings and have mark-ups and subcommittee mark-ups, obviously we would be to some degree twiddling our thumbs while the economy burns."

While Paulson, Pelosi and Boehner were the chief negotiators, other lawmakers have sought to take a strong hand in the process.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, was said to be lobbying intensively for any rebate to be sent to all low-income Americans, including those who did not pay taxes last year; some Republicans are seeking benefits only for taxpayers.

Democrats said the stimulus plan would include tax benefits, favored by many Republicans, for businesses, including a depreciation incentive to encourage businesses to make capital investments this year. The plan also might allow businesses to spread operating losses incurred this year back over five years instead of the two permitted under current law.

House Democrats said the plan would include an extension of unemployment benefits and a temporary increase in food stamp benefits, which many Democratic lawmakers have said are the two best-proven means of quickly boosting the economy.

But there was still disagreement on Capitol Hill, particularly over a desire by some Republicans for the plan to include "triggers" that would delay components of the package, such as the extension in unemployment insurance coverage, until unemployment worsens to some predetermined level.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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