Stimulus Package Debate: Not Over By A Long Shot


I woke up Wednesday morning in Washington DC, where economic crisis, which in turn means political crisis, was in the air. Fed Chairman Bernanke had cut rates the day before and helped calm financial markets. But the White House and Congress wanted to do more. Republican and Democratic leaders, who normally have guns drawn on each other, were huddling behind closed door.

I caught an early morning flight to morning in the frigid Midwest to attend a meeting of the Economic Club of Chicago. The crisis atmosphere was less evident. The club's president said Chicagoans, like Americans elsewhere, are stunned by how quickly perceptions of the economy have turned sour.

But the Dean of the University of Illinois-Chicago business school said fundamentals remain strong. And a private equity executive, so successful that he now spends his time trying to improve schools, told me all that sector wants is for Washington to get out of the way.

But when I got in the car to head for the O'Hare, the mood changed. That's because I got on my cell phone, calling back to panicked Washington. Stimulus negotiations were ongoing as the wings of my United flight were de-iced. And by the time I landed in muggy south Florida for tonight's Republican presidential debate--and promptly ditched my overcoat--I discovered in midnight email messages that the talks were virtually done.

The problem was, hardly anyone knew precisely what they were--even as word began spreading from the tiny group of negotiators to the larger group of members and staffers. I talked to senior members of Congress who thought the stimulus "rebates" to individuals were $300; they turned out to be $600 for most people. Gradually the word seeped out.

By the time of my mid-day appearance on our show "Power Lunch," from the sunny, broiling parking lot outside the debate site here in Boca Raton, House Speaker Pelosi, Republican Leader Boehner, and Treasury Secretary Paulson were preparing to announce the package at a Washington press conference and call for swift House action within three weeks.

Of course, House action won't be the end of the story. The Senate, notoriously for political roadblocks, will have its say. Ideologues on the left and right may have their own reasons for standing up against the deal. And we'll get the first big signal of how the Republican ideologues will react tonight from the GOP debate here.

In other words, I'm quite sure this debate will remain alive when I return to Washington tomorrow night--and long after that!