Economy tops Washington lawmakers' priorities for new Congress

WASHINGTON — Since he was first elected to Congress 12 years ago, Rep. Adam Smith has fashioned himself as a deficit hawk.

Times have changed.

Democrat Smith, and other members of Washington state's congressional delegation, face the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. When Congress returns for its new session Tuesday, (Jan. 6) it will be under enormous pressure to pass a massive stimulus package.

When Smith arrived in Congress in 1996, the economy was humming and he and others believed the greatest threat was from an out-of-control deficit.

"If I am anything as a politician, I am pragmatic, not ideological," Smith said. "Circumstances are different now. You don't propose an austerity plan when you have the worst recession in 60 years."

Smith is not alone in grasping the urgency as grim economic reports surface daily and aides to President-elect Barack Obama and Democratic congressional leaders discuss a stimulus package that could exceed $800 billion.

"This might be the most serious moment besides the Great Depression and World War II the country has faced," said Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash. "This is a serious time. We have to perform. The future of the nation depends on it."

But as with many things legislative, the devil is in the details. How big should the stimulus package be? How do you pay for it? Should it be aimed at job creation as Democrats want or at tax breaks as Republicans want?

"We won't be reckless about it," said Dicks, adding that as chairman of the House interior appropriations subcommittee he already has talked with the Obama team about stimulus funding for the U.S. Forest Service and various Interior Department agencies.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., as chairman of the Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee, also has been in touch with the Obama transition team about roads, highway and other infrastructure projects that could be part of the package.

"No one has put a final number on it, though economists say it has to be a sizable chunk of change to be effective," Murray said.

Murray said Congress needs to resist placing any earmarks or pet projects in a stimulus package. She also noted the tension between the states and county and city governments over who should get the money.

Republicans are considerably more cautious about a stimulus plan.

Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Wash., who voted against an earlier $700 billion rescue of the financial industry and opposed a $25 billion bailout of the auto industry, said American taxpayers are tired of writing a "blank check." What's needed, he said, was targeted tax relief and tax incentives, especially for small businesses.

In addition, Reichert said, Congress needs to get on with approving trade agreements with such countries as South Korea. The issue is especially critical for Washington, one of the most trade-dependant states, he said.

Reichert said he is skeptical about the size of the stimulus package being discussed.

"I do get concerned when people talk about spending that kind of money," he said. "Everyone should."

Another Washington state Republican, Rep. Doc Hastings, said in an e-mail that he didn't believe "spending billions more in federal taxpayer dollars for new government programs or to fill state coffers is the way to get our economy on track."

Hastings called for tax relief that creates jobs and helps businesses expand, approval of pending trade agreements, and more exploration, drilling and production of domestic energy sources.

Some Washington Democrats, such as Rep. Brian Baird, are also nervous about how a stimulus plan will "pencil out" against the backdrop of a rising deficit. But Baird said Congress also needs to quickly reform such entitlement programs as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

According to the Government Accountability Office, Baird said, the long-term commitment to entitlement programs is about $52 trillion, which exceeds the entire net worth of the American people.

"If we liquidated everything everyone owns and put in a bank, it would still not be enough," Baird said. "These are terrifying numbers."

Washington state's other senator, Democrat Maria Cantwell, said she would especially like a stimulus package linked to the development of renewable energy resources. For the region, that means more money for the Bonneville Power Administration to build additional transmission lines to carry wind power.

As a member of the Senate Finance Committee, Cantwell said she will also be pressing to re-regulate the financial sector.

"The light touch has not been good for the economy," she said.

Besides the economy, each lawmaker has his or her own priorities for the coming session.

Dicks' priorities include more money for Puget Sound cleanup, salmon recovery and removing the Elwha River dams on the Olympic Peninsula. Murray remains focused on veterans' issues and thinks she has a new ally in Obama's choice to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki.

Hastings wants to keep the Hanford nuclear reservation cleanup on track and to find a solution to water problems in the Columbia and Yakima river basins. As a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Baird and Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., will help write a new five-year highway plan.

Larsen would like to see additional money for an emergency operations center for law enforcement in Whatcom County and passage of legislation that would crackdown on illegal DXM sales (dextromethorphan). Two Whatcom County teenagers overdosed and died from the drug. Reichert will renew his effort to expand the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

But the top priority between now and the inauguration will be the economy.

"It's all about the economy," said Larsen.

The state's lawmakers also return to a Congress in which Democrats have solidified their control. In the House, Democrats picked up 22 seats and now have a 257-178 margin. In the Senate, Democrats didn't pick up the 60 seats needed to overcome filibusters. But they now have 58 seats they can usually count on, including the chamber's two independents, and the Minnesota Senate contest has yet to be decided.

Dicks and Smith both said that despite their increased numbers, especially in the House, Democrats can't take anything for granted.

"Democrats shouldn't think they have enough votes to rule the world," Smith said.