Democrats muscle huge stimulus through Congress
(AP) - In a major victory for President Barack Obama,Democrats muscled a huge, $787 billion stimulus bill throughCongress late Friday night in hopes of combating the worst economiccrisis since the Great Depression. Republican opposition was nearlyunanimous.
After lobbying energetically for the bill, Obama is expected tosign it within a few days, less than a month after taking office.
Supporters said the legislation would save or create 3.5 millionjobs. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., conceded there wasno guarantee, but he said that "millions and millions and millionsof people will be helped, as they have lost their jobs and can'tput food on the table of their families."
Vigorously disagreeing, House Republican leader John Boehner ofOhio dumped a copy of the 1,071-page bill to the floor in a gestureof contempt. "The bill that was about jobs, jobs, jobs has turnedinto a bill that's about spending, spending, spending," he said.
The Senate approved the measure 60-38 with three GOP moderatesproviding crucial support - the only members of their party to backit. Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio cast the decisive voteafter flying aboard a government plane from Ohio, where he wasmourning his mother's death.
Hours earlier, the House vote was 246-183, with all Republicansopposed to the package of tax cuts and federal spending that Obamahas made the centerpiece of his plan for economic recovery.
The legislation, among the costliest ever considered inCongress, provides billions of dollars to aid victims of therecession through unemployment benefits, food stamps, medical care,job retraining and more. Tens of billions are ticketed for thestates to offset cuts they might otherwise have to make in aid toschools and local governments, and there is more than $48 billionfor transportation projects such as road and bridge construction,mass transit and high-speed rail.
Democrats said the bill's tax cuts would help 95 percent of allAmericans, much of the relief in the form of a break of $400 forindividuals and $800 for couples. At the insistence of the WhiteHouse, people who do not earn enough money to owe income taxes areeligible, an attempt to offset the payroll taxes they pay.
In a bow to political reality, lawmakers included $70 billion toshelter upper middle-class and wealthier taxpayers from an incometax increase that would otherwise hit them, a provision that thenonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said would do relativelylittle to create jobs.
Also included were funds for two of Obama's initiatives, theexpansion of computerized information technology in the health careindustry and billions to create so-called green jobs theadministration says will begin reducing the country's dependence onforeign oil.
Asked for his reaction to House passage of the bill, Obama said"thumbs up" and indeed gave a thumbs-up sign as he left the WhiteHouse with his family for a long weekend in Chicago.
There was little or no suspense about the outcome, although thefinal act played out over hours and extended late into the night.
That was to allow time for Brown to fly back. He cast his votemore than five hours after most senators had left the Capitol for a10-day vacation, one of the longest roll calls in Senate history.
Congress cast its votes as federal regulators announced theclosing of the Sherman County Bank in Loup City, Neb.; RiversideBank of the Gulf Coast in Florida, based in Cape Coral; Corn BeltBank and Trust Co. of Pittsfield, Ill.; and Pinnacle Bank ofBeaverton, Ore. They raised to 13 the number of failures this yearof federally insured banking companies and were the latestreminders of the toll taken by recession and frozen credit markets.
The day's events at the Capitol were scripted to allowDemocratic leaders to fulfill their pledge to send Obamalegislation by mid-February.
"Barack Obama, in just a few short weeks as president, haspassed one of the biggest packages for economic recovery in ournation's history," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, anticipatingfinal Senate passage.
The approval also capped an early period of accomplishment forthe Democrats, who won control of the White House and expandedtheir majorities in Congress in last fall's elections.
Since taking office on Jan. 20, the president has signedlegislation extending government-financed health care to millionsof lower-income children who lack it, a bill that President GeorgeW. Bush twice vetoed. He also has placed his signature on a measuremaking it easier for workers to sue their employers for alleged jobdiscrimination, effectively overturning a ruling by the SupremeCourt's conservative majority.
Obama made the stimulus a cornerstone of his economic recoveryplan even before he took office, but his calls for bipartisanshipwere an early casualty.
Republicans complained they had been locked out of the earlydecisions, and Democrats countered that Boehner had tried to rallyopposition even before the president met privately with the GOPrank and file.
In retrospect, said White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, theWhite House wasn't "sharp enough" in emphasizing the benefits ofthe bill as Republicans began to criticize spending on items suchas family planning services, anti-smoking programs and reseedingthe National Mall.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faced a different task -finding enough GOP moderates to give him the 60 votes needed tosurmount a variety of procedural hurdles. To do that, he and theWhite House agreed to trim billions in spending from the original$820 billion House-passed bill, enough to obtain the backing of GOPSens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Arlen Specter ofPennsylvania.
As the final compromise took shape in a frenzied round ofbargaining earlier this week, it was trimmed again to hold thesupport of the moderates, whose opposition to a new program forfederal school construction caused anger among House Democrats.
In the end, a compromise was reached that allows states to usefunds for modernizing schools. But in a display of displeasure,Pelosi decided to skip the news conference last Wednesday whereReid announced a final agreement.
In addition to tax relief for individuals and businesses whopurchase new equipment, lawmakers inserted breaks for first-timehomebuyers and consumers purchasing new cars in an attempt to aidtwo industries particularly hard-hit by the recession. In responseto pressure from lawmakers from Pennsylvania, Indiana andelsewhere, the bill was altered at the last minute to permit thebuyers of recreational vehicles and motorcycles to claim the samebreak as those buying cars and light trucks.
In the House, all 246 votes in favor were cast by Democrats.Seven Democrats joined 176 Republicans in opposition.