WASHINGTON — While an auto bailout is on life support, President-elect Barack Obama and Democratic congressional leaders have agreed to a $500 billion economic-stimulus package that they want to move next month even before Obama takes office.
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., who'll be Obama's White House chief of staff, met Wednesday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other Democratic leaders in a strategy session aimed at fast-tracking stimulus legislation.
The meeting ended with a tentative deal to seek a half-trillion dollars to create jobs and spur economic recovery, with more than one-third of it funding "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects, senior Democratic aides said Friday.
Aides to Obama and Pelosi confirmed the meeting but declined to comment on a specific amount for the stimulus plan.
"What I can confirm is that Congressman Emanuel did meet with (congressional) leadership on Wednesday," said Amy Brundage, an Obama spokeswoman.
Obama on Saturday urged the creation of "millions of jobs" through the largest public investment in the country's roads, bridges and other infrastructure needs since the interstate freeway system was built in the 1950s under President Dwight Eisenhower.
Obama advisers previously said the stimulus plan could cost as much as $700 billion, but this is the first time a specific price tag has been placed on it.
Democratic lawmakers said much of the $165 billion or more in infrastructure spending likely would go to projects already approved in earlier sessions, with building permits, approved environmental impact statements and other steps in place.
The meaning of "infrastructure" probably will be broadened to include expanding broadband Internet access and creating "digital highways" for the 21st century economy, Democratic lawmakers and aides said.
Senate Republicans late Thursday derailed a $14 billion bailout for the Big Three automakers in a rebuke to President George W. Bush and congressional Democrats who'd negotiated it and pushed it through the House of Representatives.
It likely will be harder, however, for Republican lawmakers to block the much larger stimulus package because there will be fewer of them in the next session of Congress, which is scheduled to begin Jan. 6, two weeks before Obama's inauguration.
Democrats expanded their House and Senate margins in the Nov. 4 elections that made Obama the nation's first African-American president, but they will fall just shy of veto-proof majorities in both chambers.
Some Republican members of Congress have been at least guardedly receptive to Obama's plan to move quickly to stem the rising unemployment rate and jolt the economy by pumping tens of billions of dollars into public works.
James Baker, who served as President Ronald Reagan's treasury secretary and chief of staff, went so far as to suggest last month that Bush and Obama work together on a large stimulus plan.
Congress passed and Bush signed a $700 billion bailout for the financial-services industry in October, and the federal government has bought stakes in failing banks since then.
Those moves prompted criticism from labor unions and community advocates that Congress and Bush were favoring "Wall Street over Main Street."
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, said Friday that the Kentucky Republican had no position on Obama's promised stimulus plan because a concrete bill or proposal hadn't been advanced yet.
"I've heard between $500 billion and a trillion (dollars)," Stewart said. "The numbers have been all over the map. I don't know what (figure) they're actually going to go with, but it would be all deficit spending."
Obama has said his stimulus plan will fund projects that can begin within six months and be completed within two years.
Obama also vowed that the infrastructure projects would be based on national priorities, not on the parochial interests that have led to congressional pork in the past.
Rep. John Spratt, a South Carolina Democrat who chairs the House Budget Committee, said he didn't know the specific dollar amount of Obama's stimulus plan.
Spratt, however, said his conversations with other key Democratic lawmakers indicated it will likely increase previously appropriated money for projects already under way.
"There will be legislation written, but it will in many respects simply add funds to existing programs," he said.
Spratt said there's discussion of requiring an even narrower timeframe than Obama's 180-day limit for using the new money — possibly as small as half.
Such a limit, Spratt said, would favor work such as resurfacing roads, upgrading water-treatment plants and sewer pipes, and making federal buildings more energy-efficient — over more ambitious, long-term projects.
The president-elect and his congressional allies want "to get (a stimulus bill) passed and on Obama's desk so he can sign it on Inauguration Day," said a Democratic aide, who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly about the plan.
However, the measure won't be the result of "Obama dictating to Congress and getting whatever he wants rubber-stamped," the aide said.
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