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Dems muscle stimulus through Congress

WASHINGTON - In a major victory for President Barack Obama, Democrats muscled a huge, $787 billion stimulus bill through Congress late Friday night in hopes of combating the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Republican opposition was nearly unanimous.

The Senate approved the measure 60-38 with three GOP moderates providing crucial support. Hours earlier, the House vote was 246-183, with all Republicans opposed to the package of tax cuts and federal spending that Obama has made the centerpiece of his plan for economic recovery.

The president could sign the bill as early as next week, less than a month after taking office.

Supporters said the legislation would save or create 3.5 million jobs. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer conceded there was no guarantee, but he said that 'millions and millions and millions of people will be helped, as they have lost their jobs and can't put food on the table of their families.'

Vigorously disagreeing, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio dumped a copy of the 1,071-page bill to the floor in a gesture of contempt. 'The bill that was about jobs, jobs, jobs has turned into a bill that's about spending, spending, spending,' he said.

The legislation, among the costliest ever considered in Congress, provides billions of dollars to aid victims of the recession through unemployment benefits, food stamps, medical care, job retraining and more. Tens of billions are ticketed for the states to offset cuts they might otherwise have to make in aid to schools and local governments, and there is more than $48 billion for 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 all Americans, much of the relief in the form of a break of $400 for individuals and $800 for couples. At the insistence of the White House, people who do not earn enough money to owe income taxes are eligible, an attempt to offset the payroll taxes they pay.

In a bow to political reality, lawmakers included $70 billion to shelter upper middle-class and wealthier taxpayers from an income tax increase that would otherwise hit them, a provision that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said would do relatively little to create jobs.

Also included were funds for two of Obama's initiatives, the expansion of computerized information technology in the health care industry and billions to create so-called green jobs the administration says will begin reducing the country's dependence on foreign 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 White House with his family for a long weekend in Chicago.

There was little or no suspense about the outcome, although the final act played out over hours and extended late into the night.

That was to allow time for Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown to fly back - aboard a government plane - from Ohio, where his mother died earlier in the week. His was the decisive 60th vote for the bill.

Congress cast its votes as federal regulators announced the closing of the Sherman County Bank in Loup City, Neb.; Riverside Bank of the Gulf Coast in Florida, based in Cape Coral; Corn Belt Bank and Trust Co. of Pittsfield, Ill.; and Pinnacle Bank of Beaverton, Ore. They raised to 13 the number of failures this year of federally insured banking companies and were the latest reminders of the toll taken by recession and frozen credit markets.

The day's events at the Capitol were scripted to allow Democratic leaders to fulfill their pledge to send Obama legislation by mid-February.

'Barack Obama, in just a few short weeks as president, has passed one of the biggest packages for economic recovery in our nation's history,' said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, anticipating final Senate passage.

The approval also capped an early period of accomplishment for the Democrats, who won control of the White House and expanded their majorities in Congress in last fall's elections.

Since taking office on Jan. 20, the president has signed legislation extending government-financed health care to millions of lower-income children who lack it, a bill that President George W. Bush twice vetoed. He also has placed his signature on a measure making it easier for workers to sue their employers for alleged job discrimination, effectively overturning a ruling by the Supreme Court's conservative majority.

Obama made the stimulus a cornerstone of his economic recovery plan even before he took office, but his calls for bipartisanship were an early casualty.

Republicans complained they had been locked out of the early decisions, and Democrats countered that Boehner had tried to rally opposition even before the president met privately with the GOP rank and file.

In retrospect, said White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, the White House wasn't 'sharp enough' in emphasizing the benefits of the bill as Republicans began to criticize spending on items such as family planning services, anti-smoking programs and reseeding the National Mall.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid faced a different task - finding enough GOP moderates to give him the 60 votes needed to surmount a variety of procedural hurdles. To do that, he and the White House agreed to trim billions in spending from the original $820 billion House-passed bill, enough to obtain the backing of GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

As the final compromise took shape in a frenzied round of bargaining earlier this week, it was trimmed again to hold the support of the moderates, whose opposition to a new program for federal school construction caused anger among House Democrats.

In the end, a compromise was reached that allows states to use funds for modernizing schools. But in a display of displeasure, Pelosi decided to skip the news conference Wednesday where Reid announced a final agreement.

In addition to tax relief for individuals and businesses who purchase new equipment, lawmakers inserted breaks for first-time homebuyers and consumers purchasing new cars in an attempt to aid two industries particularly hard-hit by the recession. In response to pressure from lawmakers from Pennsylvania, Indiana and elsewhere, the bill was altered at the last minute to permit the buyers of recreational vehicles and motorcycles to claim the same break as those buying cars and light trucks.