Capitol Hill is slowly coming back to life after the extended holiday recess. Members of the House of Representative returned to town on Tuesday, and the Senate returns this week. Two topics dominated conversation this week: the upcoming primary races in Nevada and South Carolina and the economy.
In a rare show of bi-partisan unity, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), joined by other members of the House leadership, met repeatedly last week and held a joint press conference to announce plans to develop an economic stimulus package that could be supported by the president and the majority of Democratic and Republican legislators.
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) sounded a bit less conciliatory about bi-partisan economics at first, but by week's end it appeared that a consensus bill that spends between $75 and $120 billion could move smooth as butter through Congress in the next two weeks. In the words of several Democratic spokespersons, the bill would be "timely, targeted and temporary." President Bush substituted "simple" for "targeted," perhaps because his plan builds around sending checks to all taxpayers rather than saving benefits for those who are low-income or unemployed. There is agreement that whatever action Congress takes must get immediate results (a quick cash benefit that will be spent and not saved) and will not require permanent changes to the tax code or entitlement programs. Talk of an economic stimulus bill is the first of many conversations about fiscal policy that are sure to dominate the legislative landscape for the next nine months. On Jan. 28, the president will give his State of the Union Address, followed quickly by his budget proposal for FY 2009, which will be unveiled on Feb. 4.
Though specific details are not yet available, education advocates anticipate an austere spending plan for the Department of Education with many familiar program freezes, cuts and eliminations in place. What does seem clear is that the Democratic leadership is chastened by last year's tumultuous debate on the budget and will likely set less ambitious spending goals, focusing instead on the need for a stronger Democratic majority in Congress and leadership in the White House if the domestic budget is to grow.