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Sen. Alexander On Stimulus Compromise

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Unemployment claims jumped more than expected; the Labor Department said that today. And President Obama warned that even more jobs will be lost if Congress does not quickly pass the economic stimulus bill that's now before the U.S. Senate. The Senate could vote as early as tomorrow. Today, moderates in both parties were trying to trim back spending to win more Republican support for the measure.

Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander is part of a group of senators who want more emphasis on fixing the ailing housing market. And Senator Alexander joins us from the Senate cloak room. Welcome to the program.

Senator LAMAR ALEXANDER (Republican, Tennessee): Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: You're quoted in today's Roll Call, the Capitol Hill paper, as saying this about the possibility of a Republican filibuster against the stimulus package: We'll see how this goes, if the Democrats modify their bill and accept our proposals, or some of our proposals.

Well, another day has passed. Are you seeing that it's going closer to a filibuster, or closer to agreement on a bill?

Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, our goal is certainly not a filibuster. We - the economy needs to get moving. The president and we agree on that. Our problem is that the trillion dollar proposal that's been given to us is a spending bill and it's not a stimulus bill. So our whole objective is to try to change it so it'll create jobs. And we want to start by fixing housing first. Then let people keep more of their own money. And then get rid of the spending for programs that don't really create jobs right away.

SIEGEL: Is their some total figure? You say a trillion. It's somewhere in the $900 billions, I think now. Is there some figure that strikes you as about as much as a stimulus package should be?

Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, I can give you an example that will have a variety of proposals to fix housing by giving tax credits to home buyers, helping people with loan modifications. It'll reduce the payroll tax in the lower tax brackets. It'll help with unemployment insurance. And it adds up to about $420 billion; that's less than half of the spending program that the Democrats have proposed. And we believe it's real stimulus.

SIEGEL: You've been talking about a proposal to have the federal government guarantee mortgages at either four or 4.5 percent for people - not just first time buyers but for people to finance or refinance with. How expensive is that, if 40 million people take advantage of a four or 4.5 percent interest rate?

Sen. ALEXANDER: We put a cap on it of $300 billion over the two years that a four to 4.5 percent, 30 year mortgage rate would be available to any creditworthy American homeowner. The economists who we've talked with think it's more likely to be 30 or $40 billion. But the whole idea is instead of spending money, we would - on government programs - we would give homeowners a chance to buy a house or refinance a house. That would be instant jobs. It would put brokers and contractors and plumbers and others to work and it would save everyone who had the lower cost mortgage about $400 a month every year for the 30 years of the mortgage.

SIEGEL: Well, what have you heard about that proposal from President Obama or from the Democrats?

Sen. ALEXANDER: I haven't heard from President Obama. Some of the Democrats like it. Senator Ensign of Nevada and I and others are proposing it and we'll vote on it tonight.

SIEGEL: Let's me ask you a question. If it came down to a cloture vote on the stimulus package in the Senate and it failed for lack of 60 votes - it failed on a straight party line vote, it's hypothetical - would you be satisfied, as a Republican, to go to the country and say because we didn't see enough of our ideas in the Democrats' proposal, even though they're in the majority and they won the White House, there is no economic stimulus bill? Would that be a good thing or a disaster for the GOP?

Sen. ALEXANDER: That would be a bad thing for the country, because what it would mean is that the new president and the new Democratic Congress had not been able to work with the Republican minority and come up with legislation that really helps get the economy moving. I mean we're doing exactly what I think the country expects us to do and the president has asked us to do.

He said give us your ideas. Let's work in a bipartisan way. So we say, one, fix housing first. Two, let people keep more of their own money. Three, let's delay spending for programs that don't create jobs now. We can do all that for a few hundred billion dollars. Those are our ideas. So we hope he or the Democratic majority will accept those.

SIEGEL: And just very briefly, before I let you go: What is the possibility of their being no agreement? Is it zero? Is it five percent? Is it very likely at this stage?

Sen. ALEXANDER: The chance is low of no agreement. The difficulty will be if the Democrats take the position we won the election, we write the bill. President Bush said I'm the commander-in-chief, I'll wage the war. That's not the basis for the kind of change we need here or for a successful presidency. We need for the president and the Democratic majority to listen to our ideas about fixing housing, lowering taxes, and not spending a trillion dollars, which is more than we spent in today's dollars during the entire New Deal.

SIEGEL: Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a Republican, thank you very much.

Senator ALEXANDER: Thank you for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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