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Recovery bill divides Peterson, Oberstar

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, right, makes a point Thursday during a reunion with Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller of Minneapolis. The Democrats used to sit next to each other on the state Senate floor, prompting Pogemiller to joke that he always checked how Peterson voted and he voted the other way.

ST. PAUL - An economic stimulus package that would send $4.5 billion to Minnesota deeply divided two of the state's most powerful politicians.

"It is a wide-ranging investment in America," U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar said.

"This would go against everything I have been for," U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson countered.

The two chairmen discussed the $819 billion economic recovery measure in the Minnesota Capitol Thursday, there to brief legislative leaders on the economic package.

The two are among the most powerful House members. Oberstar, who serves northeast and east-central Minnesota, is Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman. Peterson, whose district encompasses most of western Minnesota, leads the House Agriculture Committee.

Peterson joined 10 other Democrats and all House Republicans in voting against the measure that passed 244-188. He said that passing no bill would be better than the one the House backed.

"We need to let this thing (economy) bottom out and then spend the money to fix it," Peterson said, adding that is not what people want to hear.

Minnesota would get $706 million for infrastructure projects, including highway construction, and millions more for health programs, education, aid for the poor and clean water projects.

The bill heads to the Senate next week, where Peterson predicted it will inflate to more than $900 billion, and is due on President Barack Obama's desk by mid-February.

Peterson said the bill does not do enough to create jobs. He said it should have focused on "programs directly resulting in job creation and infrastructure projects, and for unemployment compensation and food stamps."

The Detroit Lakes lawmaker complained that good programs that are in the bill, such as education funding, do little to help the economy.

His biggest complaint is that the $819 billion, plus $350 billion in loan interest payments, just add to the country's debt.

"We are borrowing this money from China," he said.

Eventually, Peterson added, China will stop lending money to the United States, and interest rates will soar.

"Maybe I shouldn't have taken economics in college," he said. "It would have been easier to go along with this."

Oberstar, on the other hand, was one of the bill's authors. He said it would create 91,000 Minnesota jobs.

He emphasized the $477 million Minnesota expects for transportation-related projects.

Minnesota Transportation Commissioner Tom Sorel did a great job putting together a list of projects that could be started within 90 days of when the bill passes Congress, Oberstar said. But he said he was concerned that Gov. Tim Pawlenty might not spend all the federal transportation money.

When the economic package first was being discussed, Pawlenty said that he opposed federal payments to states. He since has backed off that comment, but Oberstar remembers it.

"What he says is irreverent," Oberstar said. "What he does is important."

Oberstar avoided directly criticizing Pawlenty, but made several subtle comments questioning Pawlenty's desire to use federal transportation funds.

Pawlenty's spokesman said that Oberstar's comments were noting but "partisan rants."

"President Obama has promised that the stimulus bill will be formula-driven and fair, not based on earmarks and pork barrel spending," spokesman Brian McClung said. "Gov. Pawlenty and his administration will take appropriate action to secure federal funding available for Minnesota."

Minnesota has 200 road and bridge projects that could qualify for economic stimulus funds. Oberstar estimated that 12,000 Minnesota construction workers would be on the job by June thanks to the bill's transportation section.

Oberstar said he will make sure jobs are created.

"Every 30 days, we're going to hold a hearing to report on the jobs created, the contracts that are in place, the skills that are at work, the payroll by each of the contractors, and we will report to the nation on what is happening in the workplace," Oberstar said.

Oberstar likened the infrastructure funding portion of the bill to Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps construction work in the 1930s that build things such as the city hall and ball diamond in his hometown of Chisholm.


Peterson and Oberstar agreed that tax cuts in the plan, included at President Barack Obama's insistence, may not be the best move.

"We have tried that before and they didn't work," Peterson said.

"I haven't seen a shovel at the end of a tax cut," Oberstar added.

Rep. Tim Walz, a southern Minnesota Democrat, represents an area similar to that of Peterson's district, but voted in favor of the measure.

"Our economy is in crisis and people are hurting," Walz said. "We're going to turn this crisis into a job-creating opportunity, putting 3 to 4 million people back to work rebuilding our country and preparing America for the future. This is one of those times in our history when doing too little poses a greater threat than doing too much. Clearly, it won't be easy but America's better days are still to come."

Walz said experts predict 90 percent of jobs created under the bill would be in the private sector.

"The Congress and president must act quickly because the situation continues to worsen by the day,:" Walz said. "Most importantly, this must be done in an open and transparent way, inviting people from all walks of life and across the political spectrum to become a part of the solution."