Who's the Grinch of the Stimulus Package?

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Senators Lott and Daschle discuss the economic stimulus package with the press

Fourteen weeks after Sept. 11 and 48 hours before Congress goes home for the holidays, the last man standing between you and an economic stimulus package for Christmas is Tom Daschle.

At least that's what George W. Bush would like you to think. Bush was all over the airwaves Wednesday, announcing a new compromise bill that "can pass both bodies so we can leave for Christmas knowing full well that we have done the people's business" and bringing along three centrist Democratic senators as evidence. The Republican-controlled House even stayed up late Wednesday night to prove that the new bill could pass through their body, anyway.

And yes, with John Breaux, Zell Miller, and Ben Nelson on board, the bill could pass the Senate by a narrow margin — if it were to ever come to a vote. And that's where Daschle (and of course Jim Jeffords) come in.

"I would simply say that this is going to require 60 votes to overcome ... hurdles on the Senate floor," Daschle noted dryly later in the day. "It would not be my intention to bring it up because it does not represent the sort of compromise we hoped to achieve here."

The "sort of compromise" between GOP that Daschle is holding out for from Republican House, Senate and increasingly fervent (at least publicly) White House negotiators has apparently been largely achieved over the past week, with the exception of one sticking point: Providing health care for unemployed workers. Bush and the Republicans want to do it with tax credits, redeemable at private insurers. Daschle and the Democrats want to do it with established government programs COBRA and Medicare. The White House line is that COBRA and Medicare won't help people whose companies went bankrupt — Daschle's is that having a 60-percent tax credit for health insurance doesn't mean anyone will honor it at an affordable price.

And that's about it. Yes, it's an admittedly partisan (the Beltway word is "philosophical") difference that goes deeper than this winter's recession — the Democrats think the Republicans are trying to privatize health insurance, bit by bit, while the Republicans, well, the Republicans want to privatize health insurance, bit by bit. They just happen to think it's a great idea.

But is a difference of opinion over health care worth scuttling a bill worth $216 billion in economic stimulus over three years' (Don't ask how it got that big or that long, but that's what currently on the table.) Is it worth it to Daschle and Dennis Hastert and Bush to stick to their guns and slink out of town "not having done the people's business?"

For these guys, it all depends on what the people think — now, and at midterm time in 2002. So far, they're giving both sides reason to stick to their differences. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released Wednesday found that voters prefer the Republican approach (that would be tax cuts) to the economy over the Democrats' by a decent margin — 44 percent to 35 percent. Which might worry Daschle, except for that those same voters are split right down the middle — 47 percent say yes, 49 percent say no — over whether the government should do anything about the economy at all. In fact, voters are even split 50-49 over whether the economy is even in serious trouble.

Not exactly a clarion call to compromise — not when 76 percent say the economy will be fine in a year, and more economists than that agree with them. Sure, Wall Street could always use some extra stimulus, and stocks rallied on Bush's we-have-a-deal and sold off on Daschle's not-yet-you-don't. But between Tuesday's good news about the housing market and Wednesday's continued comeback of the index of Leading Economic Indicators, the backdrop of this week's climactic wrangle is less and less one of urgency. (Although Friday morning's University of Michigan consumer sentiment report for the first half of December could spin things the other way.)

Both sides still want a package, but if it means eating "philosophical" crow, it's almost as good to be seen wanting a stimulus package. Hence Bush's heavy media presence Wednesday — he's dealing with some pretty heavy Bush I flashbacks, but again, he can top Dad just by looking like he tried. Hence Daschle's, who has to worry about hanging onto that Senate of his in 2002 — and whether he'll get more long-term juice out of standing firm than playing nice. Hence all the frantic blaming, gaming and framing to which we were treated all through Thursday and Friday, the last two legislating days before Christmas.

Anything else, you'll have to wait till January.