Republicans postpone negotiations on stimulus bill to next week, accuse Democrats

Friday, December 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ House Republicans Friday postponed negotiations on legislation to boost the economy amid GOP grumbling that Senate Democrats are setting impossibly high thresholds for compromise. Democrats accused Republicans of staging a walkout.

Aides to Rep. Bill Thomas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said there would be no session of the bipartisan House-Senate group until next week at the earliest. Thomas, R-Calif., has been chairing the sessions, which have produced little of substance.

A short time later, House and Senate Democrats held back-to-back events contending that the Republicans were abandoning the talks in a fit of pique amid fresh evidence that more and more Americans are losing their jobs.

``The Republicans, I believe, want to blow up the stimulus package,'' said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., one of the negotiators. ``If you're going to help people, then you better be serious about it.''

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., responded that Republicans ``remain committed to negotiating in good faith'' toward an agreement. Hastert repeated Republican unhappiness with a decision by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., to require that any deal be acceptable to a solid majority of the 50-member Senate Democratic caucus. Independent Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont also caucuses with the Democrats.

Republicans said that was an unrealistic hurdle for any stimulus bill that includes significant tax relief, given opposition among many Democrats to more tax reductions on top of the 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut enacted earlier this year.

``If they're trying to prevent a stimulus deal, this is the way to do it,'' said Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee and the Senate GOP's negotiator on the bill. ``This litmus test is designed to limit any agreement to a Democrats-only deal.''

Daschle has said several times that any bill produced by the bipartisan House-Senate negotiations should satisfy demands of most in his Democratic caucus. Republicans erupted Thursday after Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, reported that the threshold was roughly two-thirds of the Senate Democrats.

``This is a hurdle that can only be meant to undermine the conference,'' said Michele Davis, spokeswoman for Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.

Daschle said Friday that he has done exactly the same thing on other major pieces of legislation since the Sept. 11 terror attacks and insisted any stimulus bill must have overwhelming support of both parties in order to pass.

``It's an amusing overreaction,'' Daschle said of the GOP complaints.

Some Republicans had suggested Thursday that Daschle's decision could delay the negotiations, which had been scheduled to continue into Saturday.

``It virtually guarantees that no deal could be struck,'' said Terry Holt, spokesman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas, a House negotiator. ``We would be committing ourselves to a process that would be bound to fail.''

Daschle, for his part, did not mention the Democratic caucus threshold when he met with reporters Thursday morning. Instead, he said House GOP concessions on unemployment benefits and aid on health insurance for the jobless were not a bad start but still have ``a lot of shortcomings'' that needed to be addressed.

``I'm hopeful that we can keep negotiating,'' he said.

The Republicans have offered a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits, which Democrats have demanded, as well as a tax credit and voucher for laid-off people to afford health insurance. Previous GOP plans offered grants to states to tackle these problems. Democrats are seeking even broader relief.

President Bush and the Republicans also want to accelerate income tax cuts now set to take effect in the future, approve another batch of rebate checks, boost expensing and depreciation write-offs for business and provide corporate alternative minimum tax relief.