House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday that Congress is unlikely to approve a tax rebate before President Bush leaves office, and she signaled that prospects are dim for a postelection session to pass an economic aid package.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Pelosi played down the chances that Democrats — increasingly confident of capturing the White House and building their House and Senate majorities substantially — could come to terms with Bush and vanquished congressional Republicans this fall on a plan to address Americans' pocketbook woes.
Democrats have already called for a $61 billion package of jobless aid and spending, and are looking at adding to it as the financial meltdown exacerbates the economic crisis.
"What we're doing is preparing," Pelosi, D-Calif., said in an interview in her Capitol office. "We'll come in if we have a purpose... if there's something to pass that (Bush would) sign."
Pelosi spoke in exuberant terms of capitalizing on a political "tide" gathering in favor of Democrats to beef up her majority. If a wave materializes to sweep out Republicans en masse, Democrats might not see a point in attempting to negotiate with Bush on an economic recovery measure when they have the chance, 11 weeks later, to do so with Barack Obama in the White House.
"If (Bush) won't sign it, then let's get on a path" to enacting a recovery bill, Pelosi said, "instead of beating our head against a wall just to make a point that he won't sign it. But we can get something signed — please, God — when Barack Obama wins the election."
At the same time, Pelosi all but ruled out acting this year on the two economic measures most attractive to Republicans: a tax cut and a free trade agreement with Colombia.
"We could add a rebate, tax cut, or something like that. I think that's going to take more time." Pelosi said. "I don't think we can do that by the time of a lame duck."
She bristled at the suggestion that Democrats might go along with the Colombia pact — a high hope of Bush's — in exchange for his agreement on a recovery package that he has so far resisted.
"He's going to hold American working families hostage to something that he wants legislatively?" Pelosi said.
The Colombia deal "will rise and fall on its own merit," she said, but it would have to be paired with measures to address job losses in the U.S.
Pelosi declined to speculate on the size of any economic recovery bill, which she has said might need to be as large as $150 billion. Economists have told leading Democrats the plan should be twice that size, but Pelosi said it won't approach that amount "unless a large piece of it is a tax cut."
But she left little doubt that Democrats will make a middle-class aid package a major priority in the new Congress, after going along with Bush on the $700 billion financial bailout that has infuriated voters across the spectrum.
"There's massive resentment about this rescue package," Pelosi said. People "don't see themselves being the priority."
Pelosi also said Congress would have to tackle the politically sticky job of overhauling immigration laws in the new Congress, after a bipartisan measure collapsed last year.
The estimated 12 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally "are part of the U.S. economy. We cannot send them all home, and we cannot send them all to jail, so we have to address it," Pelosi said.
Any solution would have to be bipartisan, she said, so it may require sacrificing some of Democrats' past priorities, such as giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
"Maybe there never is a path to citizenship if you came here illegally," Pelosi said. "I would hope that there could be, but maybe there isn't."
She also said she planned to work with Republicans on other tough issues such as overhauling Social Security and Medicare, expanding health care coverage, and energy policy.
"These are very big issues, and in order for them to have sustainability and support in the public, I think it's important for them to have bipartisanship," Pelosi said.