WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senior Republican senators warned on Sunday their party was unlikely to back President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus bill without changes to cut waste and to ensure the nearly $900 billion package promptly boosts the faltering U.S. economy.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he doubted the economic stimulus bill can pass the Senate in its current form. He said the bill needs to “put lead on the target immediately” with a specific focus on the housing sector and tax relief.
“If we’re going to spend anywhere near this ... it needs to be timely, temporary and targeted,” he told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“Let’s fix housing first. That’s what started all of this,” the Kentucky senator said of a recession triggered by the U.S. housing sector meltdown that has spread economic gloom around the world and has cost millions of American jobs.
McConnell offered a Republican plan to provide government-backed, 4 percent fixed mortgages to credit-worthy home buyers, saying it could save them an average of $5,600 a year. A senior Democratic senator said the plan had merit.
The Senate is expected to take up consideration of the Democrats’ stimulus bill this week after the House of Representatives approved a smaller $825 billion bill last week without the support of a single Republican.
Congress is rushing to meet a mid-February deadline set by Obama for enacting the legislation aimed at lifting the economy out of a 13-month-long recession.
Some of the controversial projects in the huge U.S. economic stimulus package are seen as valuable bargaining chips in winning support from skeptical Republicans.
The No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, Richard Durbin of Illinois, said Democrats were open to Republican amendments to the stimulus package.
“We’ve said to them, ‘We’re open about this. Come to us with your ideas, if you want to make changes and offer amendments,'” Durbin said on “Fox News Sunday”.
Democrats now control 58 seats in the Senate and are leading in one undecided race. Under the Senate rules, 60 votes are needed to overcome any procedural hurdles raised by Republicans.
Another top Republican, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, said he saw support for the stimulus bill eroding and said “major structural changes” were needed to win Republican support.
“You have to start from scratch and reconstruct this,” Kyl, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, told “Fox News Sunday.”
Kyl said the proposed bill, with a price approaching $900 billion, “wastes a ton of money.” He took issue with items in the bill, including a $500 tax rebate, the creation of dozens of new government programs and transfers of cash to states.
Republicans sought not to delay the bill, but wanted “huge amendments that would redirect it” to address the housing industry collapse and provide tax relief measures, Kyl said.
McConnell urged Obama to “get a hold of these Democrats in the Senate and the House ... and shake them a little bit and say, ‘Look, let’s do this the right way.'”
Senate Democrats were receptive to amendments to boost infrastructure spending and to impose stricter oversight of the $700 billion bailout program for banks and Wall Street known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, said Durbin.
Senator Charles Schumer of New York said he and fellow Democrats had been listening to their Republican critics -- and had dropped, for example, $200 million to fix up the National Mall and millions of dollars for family planning.
“This will pass with Republican votes, because it’s a good package, and because we will make some changes around the edges,” he told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Schumer said Democrats were open to exploring Republicans’ ideas on housing, including the government-backed mortgage plan for home buyers. But he said these issues should be handled by the remaining TARP money.
Democrats agreed with Republicans that the stimulus bill in its current form does not include enough spending on infrastructure, including transportation, he said.
“The worry here is that we get into a deflationary spiral downward and no one knows how to get out of that,” said Schumer, who warned that the last time that happened was the Great Depression.
The House bill was estimated to cost $825 billion, but might be closer to $819 billion when accounting for its future impact on the deficit. The Senate bill, with different tax components, would come close to $900 billion.
Editing by Julie Vorman and David Wiessler