Concerns among Republicans and Democrats about adding to the deficit are weighing down a nearly $200 billion spending bill to the point that its passage appears in serious jeopardy.
The package of extensions for unemployment insurance, health insurance for those without jobs and a fix to maintain current rates for Medicare payments would add about $134 billion to the deficit. Key senators from both parties said they did not want to do this.
“We can’t keep saying we’re concerned about the deficits but keep adding to the deficits,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, Maine Republican. “At some point you have to draw some lines.”
Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, in particular said he did not think the legislation should include the adjustments to Medicare payments if they were not going to be paid for, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Snowe would normally be considered one of the key Republican lawmakers that Democrats – who have a 59-seat majority – would need to to get to 60 votes and overcome a Republican filibuster. She told reporters at the Capitol that the “extenders bill” had become a “wish list” for Democratic lawmakers.
“I think they should limit it,” Snowe said. “They’re using it as one of these catch-all bills. They’re sort of trying to score political points by adding everything in there and then say, ‘Well, we’ll force them to cast a vote because it’s election time,’ rather than doing what’s right for the country.”
Democratic leadership aides in the Senate and House maintained Tuesday afternoon that they were working on passing the larger package. Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, is set to propose a smaller, short-term extension of unemployment insurance and help for those without health coverage that is fully paid for with money from the $787 billion stimulus.
Grassley’s short-term bill would extend unemployment insurance until July 7, COBRA insurance for unemployed workers through June 30th, Medicare payment adjustments until July 1 and poverty guidelines, flood insurance and the SBA loan program until June 30, according to a GOP leadership aide.
Snowe’s comments came just after President Obama traveled to the Capitol to meet with Senate Republicans. The White House said the president asked Republicans to support the Supreme Court nomination of Elena Kagan, to ratify the recently agreed to START nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, and to help craft legislation to help small businesses, reform the immigration system and move toward energy independence.
According to aides briefed on the meeting, a few GOP senators were “direct” with Obama on a few issues. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee spoke to the president about concerns that the White House had encouraged Democratic leadership to score political points on the financial regulation bill rather than make bipartisan agreement the top priority, while Sen. John McCain of Arizona reportedly had some sharp words on immigration reform.
“We need to secure the borders first,” McCain said. “He didn’t agree.”
“I told him we needed the [National] Guard on the border,” McCain said.
Less than an hour after the president had departed, White House officials leaked the news that Obama plans to send 1,200 National Guardsmen to the border and spend $500 million on securing the border.
A White House spokesman on Air Force One, as Obama flew to California to raise money for Sen. Barbara Boxer’s reelection, downplayed any contentiousness in the meeting with Republican senators, and said the GOP lawmakers were exaggerating any confrontations, according to a pool reporter on board the plane.
“Obviously, there were continued differences on some of these issues. But, the president believes that direct dialogue is better than posturing, and he was pleased to have the opportunity to share views with the conference,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, in an official read-out of the meeting sent to reporters.
Snowe, however, took direct aim at the issue of help for small businesses, an issue Obama talked about at a White House event earlier in the day.
Democrats, Snowe said, “just want to spend more and they want to tax more but they don’t want to do anything about helping small business.”
“We’re giving lip service to it but nothing beyond lip service,” she said.