Thune offers amendment to send stimulus money -- all of it -- to taxpayers

WASHINGTON -- Instead of spending $936 billion on projects and programs to stimulate the economy, South Dakota Sen. John Thune offered an alternative idea Friday: Why not send that $936 billion to taxpayers and let them do the stimulating?...

WASHINGTON -- Instead of spending $936 billion on projects and programs to stimulate the economy, South Dakota Sen. John Thune offered an alternative idea Friday: Why not send that $936 billion to taxpayers and let them do the stimulating?

Thune, a Republican, offered an amendment that would have redirected the entire amount of the Senate stimulus legislation -- which was believed early Friday to be $936 billion -- to tax rebates. The amendment was considered at about 11 p.m. during a marathon Senate session and was defeated by a vote of 61-35.

The amendment sought tax rebates of $5,143 for single filers and $10,286 for married couples filing jointly. Eligibility would have been capped at $250,000 of adjusted gross income in order to target the middle class, and rebates would have been issued to about 182 million people.

Thune acknowledged ahead of the vote on the amendment that it was likely to fail and that a Democratic-favored plan was likely to pass Friday evening. He also acknowledged that, in offering his doomed amendment, he might come under fire from Democrats who would criticize it as a waste of time. He was unapologetic.

"A lot of what we do around here is offer amendments," he said in a Friday afternoon phone interview with The Daily Republic. "When we were in charge, the Democrats were always offering amendments that they knew weren't going to pass, but that's part of what we do. We debate these issues, and we draw distinctions and differences."


Thune's fellow South Dakotan, Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, opposed Thune's amendment.

"Senator Johnson supports the middle class tax cuts that are currently in the bill," Johnson spokeswoman Julianne Fisher said in an e-mail. "Unfortunately, a stimulus bill that only includes tax rebates wouldn't build a road, fix a bridge, or repair a single school."

Part of what Thune hoped to do with the amendment was to "clarify the choice" that faced senators in regard to the stimulus legislation. That choice, he said, was whether to entrust the government or taxpayers with economic recovery.

"If you're going to spend $900 billion, and I take issue with that, but if that's what we're going to end up doing, I would rather do it this way as opposed to the way that they purport to do it," Thune said.

Thune's amendment capped a frantic week of stimulus propagandizing by the two South Dakota senators. Each senator's office sent out multiple news releases, and Thune made numerous appearances on national television.

Johnson disseminated a report Wednesday from the Democratic Policy Committee detailing $661.5 million worth of benefits that the Democratic stimulus bill purportedly contained for South Dakota. The benefits were listed under categories such as infrastructure and science, education and training, energy, "protecting the vulnerable," law enforcement, unemployment benefits and tax cuts.

Thune announced an alternative Republican stimulus proposal Thursday morning that he said would cost half of the Democratic plan's cost and create twice as many jobs. The failed proposal focused on immediate tax relief for working families, help for small businesses, stabilization of home values, a prohibition against tax increases to pay for the spending, and assistance for the unemployed.

Johnson responded Thursday afternoon with a statement that acknowledged his reservations about the Democratic legislation but said Congress should not "let the perfect be the enemy of the good." He said the legislation was not loaded with political handouts, as some charged, but rather contained needed infrastructure investments that would "spend money, help create new jobs and stimulate the economy."


Friday, Thune's office announced his tax-rebate amendment in a press release sent at 12:27 p.m. At 1:26 p.m., Johnson's office issued a press release reiterating his support for the Democratic stimulus legislation and criticizing Republican attempts to block it.

"There is still room for negotiations as this package moves forward, but attempts to block it with a filibuster is tantamount to kicking our economy off a cliff," Johnson said in part. "The problem is real, the needs are urgent and action is necessary."

A central point of disagreement between Johnson and Thune was the value of some of the infrastructure-related spending in the Democratic proposal. Thune called some of the spending "pork," while Johnson called it "necessary."

"I have long supported the infrastructure investment portions of this bill to provide a short-term economic boost in the form of more construction activity," Johnson said in a written statement, "and a longer-term increase in our economic productivity by enhancing the quality of the infrastructure that businesses and citizens rely upon every day."

Thune said Democratic stimulus provisions had "degenerated into a slow, unfocused, and unending spending bill filled with every kind of pet and pork project imaginable." He said the flood of federal infrastructure money would override local decisions about some projects and dangerously expand the power of the federal government.

"So many things in this bill are going to change the nature of the role of government relative to people in our society and relative to the state and local governments who have historically had to make some of these decisions on their own," Thune said. "I'm sure they're all happy to see the federal government ship them money, but it's only going to come one time, and that doesn't change the structural problems that the state is facing or any other state is facing this year."

As the hours ticked down to an expected vote on the Democratic stimulus legislation Friday evening and Republican amendments seemed doomed to fail, Thune admitted to fighting what appeared to be a losing battle.

"Something will pass," he said, "and it will be big, and it will be very heavy on government spending."

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