Fiddling with the stimulus

Senate Democrats are eagerly tossing the House leadership under the bus by provoking a confrontation with the White House over the economic stimulus package.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other high-ranking House Democrats put aside partisan differences with the Bush administration last week to hammer out a quick deal designed to head off a recession. The plan includes rebates of $600 or $1,200 for many individuals and couples who paid income taxes, and many who did not.

Members of the Senate were certainly consulted on the deal, with the hope being the measure would sail through Congress and be signed by Mr. Bush within days.

On Tuesday, the House passed the package overwhelmingly.

But the Senate is poised to lard up the stimulus and revive provisions on which House Democrats compromised with the president. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has urged his colleagues to pass the House measure as is, but that appears unlikely.

Instead, Democrats in the upper chamber are seeking to increase the size of the package by — among other things — adding an expansion of unemployment benefits and making many more people eligible to receive “rebates” who didn’t pay any income taxes at all.

At least one surgical procedure on the House measure was in danger, however. Majority Leader Harry Reid said a version of the bill backed by Senate Finance chair Max Baucus, D-Mont., which removes the income caps at which the rebates begin to phase out — $75,000 for individuals, $150,000 for couples — makes him “want to gag.”

It would be “ill-advised” to give rebates to billionaires such as Warren Buffett, Sen. Reid said.

Sen. Baucus has now decided to push a more modest expansion of the income limits. But Sen. Reid’s comments remain amusing on many levels.

In fact, if Congress is serious about stimulating the economy, it makes eminent sense to enact long-term tax reform that provides incentives for entrepreneurs to invest in endeavors that create jobs and wealth. Mr. Buffett may not need a $600 stimulus check, but the fact that it makes many Democrats queasy when they think about letting productive Americans keep more of their own money speaks volumes.

In addition, note how Sen. Reid cleverly uses Mr. Buffett as his poster boy for “the rich,” equating a multi-billionaire with a two-income couple who make $187,000 a year and currently would be ineligible for a rebate. It’s a telling juxtaposition and reveals much about whom, exactly, the Democrats really define as “the rich” when they break out the class-warfare rhetoric.

Finally, Sen. Reid gags at the thought of giving billionaires a rebate, but Democrats have no qualms offering free prescription drugs to Bill Gates under the new Medicare entitlement, or letting Mr. Buffett collect Social Security he doesn’t need, lest the programs look like welfare. Go figure.

The stimulus package, which won’t be offset by spending cuts, is more a cosmetic fix than serious economic policy. The more ornaments dangling from this Christmas tree, the more damaging it will be in the long term.

Adjusting the income caps to ensure more members of the middle and upper-middle class are eligible may be warranted. But any more tinkering than that in the Senate would be counterproductive.

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