Clashes over economic stimulus plan, aid to airline workers, other issues fray Congress’ bipartisan mood
WASHINGTON (AP) – The bipartisan spirit that has dominated Congress since the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes is being strained, with clashes erupting between Democrats and Republicans over the economy, laid-off workers and other issues.
Fissures are opening between the two parties and also within each of them over measures aimed at reviving the stalled economy. Against GOP opposition, Democrats want to add provisions helping laid-off aviation workers to airline security legislation.
Saying the money was needed to pay for war, Republicans muscled small domestic spending cuts through a divided House subcommittee Tuesday. They have also applied pressure to accelerate work on energy legislation that many Democrats oppose. In addition, partisan fights erupted this week over trade and government benefits for unmarried partners.
”The normal force of congressional gravity is a return to partisan bickering,” said Marshall Wittmann, who studies Congress for the conservative Hudson Institute. ”The question is whether the leaders can prevent a free fall.”
With the country focused on domestic security and possible U.S. military action abroad, party leaders have little taste for prolonged political combat. Top lawmakers who usually speak infrequently now consult regularly in an effort to avoid House and Senate floor fights. And relatively speedy action is still anticipated on airline security, anti-terrorism and routine spending bills.
The new comity produced a congressional authorization for the use of military force – with just one dissenting vote – and passage of a $40 billion package of emergency spending just three days after the deadly attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
”We’re going to try to avoid political confrontation,” Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Wednesday.
Despite constant bipartisan meetings on the subject, perhaps the sternest test of unity is the effort to recharge an economy that many analysts think may sink into recession.
Top Republicans want to move quickly on economic recovery legislation; leading Democrats have expressed less urgency. The GOP wants to ensure a healthy economy in time for the 2002 elections; Democrats – while still seeking internal consensus – fear the revival of budget deficits and constant cuts in federal programs.
Popular GOP ideas for reviving the economy include cutting the capital gains tax on investments and corporate income tax rates, allowing more generous deductions for business, and letting parts of this year’s tax cut take effect earlier.
Many Democrats favor cutting Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes on low-income workers who pay no income tax, or sending them tax rebates; expanding unemployment benefits and federal health-care aid for the poor; and increasing spending for school construction, job training and public works.
Each side vehemently opposes many of the other’s ideas.
”That’s labor pork,” House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said of Democratic spending proposals, referring to Democrats’ union backers.
The GOP’s push for tax cuts is ”a pre-existing agenda,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas.
Ultimately, with both parties agreeing that budget constraints must take a back seat to battling terrorists, the economic package could bear everybody’s proposals, driving the measure’s price tag sky high.
”The easiest way to maintain bipartisan comity is to say yes to everything,” said President Robert Reischauer of the liberal-leaning Urban Institute.
In other partisan fights:
-Democrats want $3.75 billion in financial aid, job training and health-care help for aviation industry workers added to airline security legislation. Republicans oppose expanding the measure.
-A House Ways and Means Committee subcommittee voted by party lines Tuesday for a GOP plan to erase planned spending increases for aiding victims of child abuse and children of prisoners. Republicans said the military may need the money.
-Senate Republicans tried amending a $343 billion defense bill Tuesday with energy legislation the Bush administration wants. Democrats halted debate on the overall bill briefly, later promising committee action on the energy package by year’s end.
-U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said the terrorist attacks increased the need for congressional approval of expanded trade negotiating powers for Bush. Democrats complained Zoellick was using the catastrophe to push a partisan measure.
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