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House GOP pushes new economic recovery package in bid for Democratic support

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Shifting gears on the economy, House Republicans decided Wednesday to bring to a vote a package of jobless aid and business tax cuts while removing controversial items in hopes of attracting solid Democratic support.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., said the legislation did not contain proposals that ``violate Democratic theology,'' such as a tax credit aimed at helping the unemployed pay health insurance premiums or accelerated income tax cuts.

``We're trying to solve the problem,'' Thomas told reporters. ``We're trying to remove their theological objections.''

The package, expected to come to a vote Thursday in the House, is composed of items many Democrats have previously backed. These include a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits, a three-year, 30 percent tax writeoff for new business investment, $5 billion in tax relief to help New York recovery efforts and renewal of a list of popular tax breaks that expired.

Total cost was estimated at $94 billion over five years.

Democratic leaders reacted cautiously, but many Democrats were optimistic that the measure could break the months-long partisan logjam over how to address the economic downturn.

``This is something that we could have done a long time ago,'' said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D. ``If it's limited to that, I think we could have strong bipartisan agreement.''

Passage of the measure would mark the fourth time the Republican-led House, at the urging of President Bush, has approved broad economic legislation since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The Democratic-led Senate has twice passed only the jobless benefits extension.

House GOP leaders had planned a vote Wednesday on a bill containing the jobless benefits extension and the health insurance tax credit. That bill was abruptly pulled from the calendar after a closed-door meeting of House Republicans at which several rank-and-file members raised concern about the election-year ramifications of continued delay in addressing economic ills, according to several GOP aides speaking on condition of anonymity.

The shift initially caught Democrats by surprise. News of the change came as Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt were in the middle of a news conference Wednesday morning to accuse the GOP of playing politics with the jobless nearly six months after Sept. 11.

Democrats have been pounding on Republicans to take up and pass the straightfoward unemployment benefits extension, pointing to the estimated 1.3 million people who have exhausted their regular 26 weeks of aid since Sept. 11. In January, there were about 7.9 million unemployed people in America.

Asked about the GOP's change, Gephardt said: ``I hope they will now do what we've been talking about ... My fear is they'll come back tomorrow with another bill that has even more extraneous matters on it, and we'll be right back to where we started from.''

Yet Daschle and other Democrats have expressed support for some business tax relief. Daschle, D-S.D., said Wednesday that because signs of economic recovery could change in the coming months ``I think passage of an economic stimulus plan would still make sense if we could reach a consensus.''

But he also said that a broader package was not as pressing as an extension of unemployment benefits.

``I want to see the (House) bill before I make any decisions about it,'' Daschle said. ``All I know is we've got something far more immediate and far more urgent and far more important than anything else right now.''
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