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Economic stimulus talks stall as parties bicker

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Democrats Friday accused House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, R-California, of canceling weekend negotiations on an economic stimulus bill in order to attend a California fund raiser for a Republican congressional candidate.

But a spokeswoman for Thomas said the congressman left town after reading press reports that Senate Democrats would only agree to a stimulus package if two-thirds of their membership were on board.

"That's not acceptable in the context of good-faith negotiations," said Barbara Clay, speaking for Thomas.

Democrats said Thomas' departure was an "outrage."

"Bill Thomas turned his backs on America's working people to go home and raise money," said Anita Dunn, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota.

Thomas spokesman Jason Poplet said it was still unclear whether Thomas would attend the fund raiser, but said the congressman would certainly attend another event in his district: an event honoring Army Staff Sgt. Brian Prosser, one of three Green Berets killed this week in Afghanistan.

"He decided if there wasn't going to be any progress on economic stimulus, he'd go back to California," Poplet said. "He hasn't been there since Thanksgiving. Why stay in Washington?"


Democrats and Republicans disagree over the size and scope of any stimulus package.

Friday morning, Thomas released a statement saying the Democrats' rule that two-thirds rule of its membership approve the package nearly guarantees that an agreement cannot be reached.

"If that's not resolved, there's no reason to meet," said Poplet, his spokesman.

"We are troubled that Sen. Daschle wants to change the rules," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, said in a statement. "That is not negotiation. That is capitulation. This my-way-or-the-highway approach is completely unacceptable to Republicans."

Fund-raising allegations

But Daschle's spokeswoman called that reason "spurious."

"Thomas has put his leadership in the position of trying to pretend there was a different reason for putting off the talks when it was really all about Bill Thomas raising political money," said Dunn.

Daschle and other Senate Democrats had also hoped to attend a fund-raising trip next week, but Daschle canceled the trip when he encountered criticism from Republicans who said he shouldn't go until Congress completes its work.

"I would suggest to Senator Daschle that he put aside his party's planned fund-raising trip and take up the serious business of this country," Republican leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said in a statement before Daschle canceled his plans.

Clay described the canceled meetings -- they were to take place Friday and Saturday -- as a "stumbling block." A decision won't be made before Monday as to when the House and Senate negotiators will sit down again, she said.

Sen. John Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, said he will remain in Washington this weekend, and hopes Thomas will return early from California.

"We have people who are suffering behind us and all over this country and that is our duty, you protect the American people and national security and you protect them when national security deprives them of healthcare and work," he said.

Other lawmakers worried about the entire process.

"I'm getting pessimistic. I'm getting worried. We have about a week left -- at the most two weeks -- and we aren't to first base," said House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri.

--CNN Congressional Correspondent Jonathan Karl and Capitol Hill Producers Ted Barrett and Dana Bash contributed to this report.


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