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The Influence Game: Unlikely groups seek job funds

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ALAN FRAM | December 24, 2008 11:12 AM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON — Zoos, the bicycle industry and advocates of beach replenishment share something this holiday season: They're all hoping for a slice of the mammoth economic stimulus package President-elect Barack Obama and Congress hope to pass early next year.

The bill, which could amount to a gargantuan $850 billion in spending and tax breaks over two years, is supposed to ease the pain of the country's worst recession in decades. With Obama transition officials and congressional Democratic leaders planning to make it their top priority in January, lobbyists for homebuilders, local governments, labor and other predictable interests are working to claim a share of the money.

Less obvious groups, though, also are lobbying hard for inclusion, underscoring how the sheer size and scope of the measure has made it irresistible to all sorts of industries and organizations that at first blush might not seem likely candidates for federal aid. It also suggests how difficult it may be for Obama and his allies to fashion a sharply focused bill, or even to decide which proposals are most worthy.

"It's a good target of opportunity, quite frankly," said Howard Malone, lobbyist for the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, which champions restoring eroded beaches and dredging shipping channels.

Despite their hopes, the incoming administration is vowing not to load up its stimulus package with special-interest goodies. "President-elect Obama and I are absolutely, absolutely determined that this economic recovery plan will not become a Christmas tree," Vice President-elect Joe Biden said this week.

Nevertheless, with Obama saying he wants the measure to finance initiatives that will quickly create millions of jobs and spur the economy, Malone and many other lobbyists are ready with multiple rationales for why their groups should qualify for money. Malone says coastal and waterway improvements would create jobs, improve navigation and recreational facilities, and even help restore areas devastated by storms like September's Hurricane Ike, which battered coastal Texas.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is making its case, and has asked its members for a list of ready-to-go projects that spokesman Steve Feldman says will cost millions. Besides their deep popularity with families and other members of the public, the attractions have a long history of federal aid, with several _ including zoos in St. Louis and San Francisco _ receiving help from Washington dating to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Feldman said.

"There's precedent. We haven't just come up with this out of the blue," he said.

Besides lobbying in Washington, association members are trying to persuade state and local officials to include zoo and aquarium projects on their own lists of proposals for spending stimulus money. That could be crucial, several lobbyists said, because the legislation will likely give state and local officials leeway in spending much of the money and will not "earmark," or designate, funds for specific projects.

Among those aggressively courting local support has been the Roger Williams Zoo in Providence, R.I., which has had to close its popular polar bear exhibit and has since seen attendance drop.

"It's a great resource," director Jack Mulvena said of his zoo, which he said is requesting $4.8 million to rebuild the polar bear exhibit and for other modernization. "Clearly we're a project that merits consideration."

Other groups trying to shape the bill include the YWCA USA, which wants to assure women get a robust share of the social spending Obama wants in the bill, and the Latino Coalition, a business-oriented group hoping it will help Hispanics with difficult mortgages and others looking for jobs.

Critics compare the clamor over the economic package to the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when Congress boosted homeland security spending.

"If I was hiring a lobbyist, shame on them if they're not trying to get me some of this money," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group that seeks to limit federal spending.

Highlighting the sharp elbows the stimulus has prompted, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's leading business group, is warning that stimulus funds should not be spread too widely and should be aimed at the economy's weakest points. The chamber wants the package to include corporate tax breaks and public works projects _ both of which would also help many of its own members.

"This is not the time to spread the money like butter across the landscape of every special interest group in the country," said R. Bruce Josten, the chamber's top lobbyist.

Such talk is rejected by groups like the Bikes Belong Coalition, which represents bicycle suppliers and retailers.

Tim Blumenthal, the executive director, has given lawmakers and Obama's transition team a list of $2 billion worth of bike paths and lanes in all 50 states that could be ready for construction in two months. He says such projects could help the environment, reduce reliance on foreign oil, improve health and boost the economy by encouraging people to park their cars and trucks and ride bicycles instead.

"Everybody who has an economic need is looking at this bill as a way out," Blumenthal said from his organization's office in Boulder, Colo.

Also weighing in is the National Automobile Dealers Association, which represents nearly 20,000 new car and truck dealers.

The group wants a "cash for clunkers" program included in the stimulus measure, to reward people getting rid of older vehicles with a tax credit. That would help the environment, reduce dependence on Middle Eastern oil and help the economy, since new-car purchases comprise a significant chunk of overall U.S. retail sales.

"If you get people buying new cars, you jump-start the economy," said association spokesman A. Bailey Wood.