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Senate Clears Path for Vote on $838 Billion Stimulus

Posted by tothewire on February 10, 2009

Congress-Stimulus

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats on Monday advanced the $838 billion economic stimulus bill, clearing a major procedural hurdle by a razor thin margin with the help of just three Republicans. A vote on final passage of the bill is expected on Tuesday.

The Senate vote, by 61 to 36, to close debate on the stimulus, symbolized the partisanship that still grips Congress despite President Obama’s call for new cooperation. It also highlighted the rising power of the centrist Republicans who cast the critical votes. Under Senate rules, it takes 60 votes to invoke cloture and usher a bill to a vote.

Those votes, by Senators Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, along with the 56 Democrats and two Independents who regularly vote with them, followed a succession of floor speeches by Republicans criticizing the stimulus as a bloated, wasteful spending bill.

But supporters of the measure said that a good, bipartisan effort had been made at drafting a compromise bill.

“I am proud of the bipartisan work that we have done during the last 10 days,” said Ms. Collins, who supplied one of the three crucial Republican votes. “As with any major legislation, this bill is not perfect, but it can go a long way toward creating jobs and addressing the dire economic crisis facing our nation.”

The majority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, said: “The United States senators from both parties met the seriousness of the economic crisis with an earnest approach to solving this emergency.”

With Mr. Obama in Indiana Monday afternoon to kick off a heightened effort to sell the stimulus plan to the public, Senate Democrats responded with their own speeches describing the bill as desperately needed to create millions of jobs and halt the recession. But for all the recriminations, it was unclear if Congress, in reconciling the Senate and House version of the bill this week, would take steps to ensure that it provides the quickest, most effective lift for the economy, or if lawmakers would simply take the path of least political resistance in rushing to get the bill to the White House by Monday.

Senate Republicans leveled their grievances amid an outcry by some House Democrats and governors and mayors from around the country, who accused Senate Democrats of caving to Republican demands by reducing the aid to states in the bill.

If the Senate approves the measure, as expected, negotiations to resolve differences with the $820 billion bill passed by the House are expected to focus in part on the Senate’s decision to cut $40 billion from a state stabilization fund.

That money, while not providing a direct lift to the economy, would reduce pressure on states for layoffs and service cuts that economists say would undercut the efforts by the stimulus bill to create jobs and spur consumer spending and business investments.

As it stands now, the Senate bill focuses more on tax cuts, while the House bill provides more aid to state and local governments. The Senate bill does not include $19 billion for school construction included in the House bill, reduces health insurance subsidies for the unemployed, and scales back Mr. Obama’s proposed middle class tax cut.

The Senate bill also includes nearly $70 billion to prevent millions of middle class families in 2009 from having to pay the alternative minimum tax, originally designed to impose minimum tax payments by the wealthy. Because Congress has made such an adjustment for years now, economists say the provision offers no new help to the economy.

Just as the Senate was voting, the Congressional Budget Office released a new analysis showing the total cost of the Senate version of the stimulus bill to be $838.2 billion over 10 years, of which $292.5 billion or roughly 35 percent is in the form of tax cuts.

The cost of the bill fluctuated slightly throughout the weekend, as Senate Democrats finalized the legislative language to reflect their deal late Friday night with the three Republicans.

After a week of the most open floor debate since Democrats won control of the Senate in 2006, the Republicans complained that they had still been largely shut out of developing the huge package of spending programs and tax cuts to revive the economy.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, for instance, said that he and other Republicans had been prevented from offering amendments, including one that would place restrictions on an increased in federal aid to states for rising Medicaid costs.

“I’m not convinced the majority wanted to have open debate and take votes on many of these amendments including mine,” he said. “It’s too bad because this bill still can be made a bipartisan bill and this bill can still be made a more effective states.”

Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, complained that for all the spending in the bill, it does not provide a sufficient number of public works projects. ,

“If we’re going to spend all this money, let’s at least get something for it, provide some jobs and get some roads and highways and bridges, things this country really needs,” he said.

“This is the largest spending in the history of mankind, the largest spending in the history of the world,” Mr. Inhofe added. “It’s something that we should not let happen, but it is going to happen right down party line.”

The Republican leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said he appreciated the more open floor debate but that it had not led to a bill that he could support. “Just because we get amendments doesn’t necessarily mean we will win them,” he said at a news conference.

“This package, had it been developed in genuine consultation, could have had a different result,” Mr. McConnell said. “But at the end of the day, it was — the administration decided — let the package be developed in Congress by the majority, and old habits die hard. You know, there was no meaningful consultation in the early part of the process. So if you don’t have that on the takeoff, you don’t end up having it on the landing.”

By DAVID M. HERSZENHORN

http://www.nytimes.com

Obama’s Town Hall Meeting
President Obama took his case for an $800 billion economic package to one of the most distressed places in America.

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