The economic stimulus package that President Bush and Congress proclaim they want to pass quickly ran into political roadblocks Wednesday that could delay its approval and turn it into a bigger bill.
Still, the odds grew that the bill, when passed, would contain tax "rebates" for 34 million low- and middle-income Americans who owed no taxes and therefore did not receive a rebate check earlier this year.
After a meeting with President Bush, House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) said the rebates could mean a $300 to $400 check for such individuals "that would help them through the holiday season." Bush also supports sending money to those who did not get a check.
The problem is over the other elements of the bill. Democrats don't like Bush's plan of moving the effective date of tax-rate cuts already approved from 2004 to 2002, and they are fighting GOP efforts to include a capital gains tax cut in the bill.
House Republican Leader Dick Armey of Texas said the bill easily could surpass the $75 billion limit suggested by Bush. Armey spoke against spending programs many Democrats are pushing.
Rather than work out the details behind closed doors, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, announced the panel would start with a blank bill as early as Friday and begin writing the measure piece by piece through amendments offered by members. The GOP has a 24-17 majority on the panel.
This procedure prompted Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, to predict a "food fight" between the parties with the threat that it could turn it into an expensive, unwieldy measure. He said Democrats alone have amendments that would add up to $300 billion.
Thomas stuck to his plan in a closed meeting with House and Senate leaders of tax-writing committees, even though they tried to dissuade him. According to sources, he said House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) wanted to follow this process and noted that an anti-terrorism bill grew from $20 billion to $40 billion through deal-cutting behind closed doors.
The House and Senate tax writers will get together again Thursday with Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill to try to work out differences and smooth the way toward passage, but a spokesman for Hastert said he doubted there would be a negotiated settlement.
Republicans and Bush want to repeal the corporate alternative minimum tax and also allow companies to write off their investments more quickly than under current law.
The package's ultimate cost is also hotly debated. The Senate Budget Committee's Democratic staff estimated Bush's tax-cut proposals would add up to $114 billion this year and $244 billion over five years.