Stimulus changes afoot

STIMULUS CHANGES AFOOT…. Last week, top Obama transition officials met with several senators to go over details on the economic recovery plan, but the lawmakers were far from pleased with what they heard. Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), one of many with concerns, said that Lawrence Summers ended the meeting by saying, “Message received, loud and clear.”

Apparently, Summers meant it, and the incoming administration has made some significant changes to the stimulus package.

Emerging from a two-hour meeting in the Capitol with Obama advisers Lawrence Summers and Jason Furman, Senate Democrats praised the President-elect’s team for agreeing to make changes to its stimulus proposal based off of concerns senators raised last week at a meeting with the president-elect’s senior aides.

The Obama team told about 35 Senate Democrats gathered at Sunday’s meeting that it would grow the size of an energy-tax incentive package and modify proposed tax credits for individuals and for businesses that hire new employees, according to meeting attendees. Also, with lawmakers raising concerns that the first half of the $700 billion of the financial rescue law was badly mismanaged, Obama’s team signaled it would lay out precisely how it would spend the second half of that package, which Congress is expected to consider as soon as this week.

“It’s very clear they’ve listened, they’ve heard and that they’re moving to respond,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, chairman of the Budget Committee, who questioned previously whether the tax credits in the stimulus package were enough to encourage new jobs. “It was very, very healthy. They’re not defensive, not arguing back, they’re listening, they’re attempting to hear and they’re responding.”

Everyone sounds much happier now. John Kerry’s concerns over business tax breaks are leading to changes, while Sens. Barbara Boxer’s (D-Calif.) and Maria Cantwell’s (D-Wash.) arguments have led Obama to double funds for energy tax credits.

All of this sounds encouraging — I found the senators’ concerns pretty compelling — but based on media reports on yesterday’s meetings, there isn’t a sense that the stimulus plan is going to be bigger, only that the money to be allocated will be used more efficiently and effectively. To that end, the transition team appears to be making changes within the $775 billion package, while economists are pushing for a more ambitious approach.

Still, the improvements seem to be a step in the right direction, and demonstrate a flexibility on the part of Obama’s team. The president-elect has spoken repeatedly about his openness to new ideas, and he appears to mean it.

As for the calendar, Obama has signaled that he wants the rescue plan on his desk by mid-February, and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) predicted yesterday that Congress should be able to deliver the package by February 13.