WASHINGTON - Congress gave overwhelming final approval Thursday night to legislation that would send government payments to most American households, provide mortgage relief to home buyers in high-price markets, including Silicon Valley, and grant tax incentives for business investment.
The $152 billion stimulus plan for the faltering U.S. economy now awaits a signature from President Bush. The White House said Bush would sign the bill sometime next week.
The deal came Thursday after the Senate added low-income seniors and disabled veterans to the list of people who would receive money under a package previously approved by the House, then overwhelmingly approved the bill, 81-16. The House took up and passed the Senate measure Thursday night in a 380-34 vote, ensuring that checks will begin reaching recipients by mid-May.
Congress' action on the stimulus package reflected not only the growing concerns in Washington that the nation has already slipped into a recession but also the desire to convince voters that the government is capable of responding quickly. It took just two weeks for House leaders from both parties to forge the initial deal with President Bush, for the House to pass it overwhelmingly, for the Senate to amend it, and for Congress to put its final stamp on the legislation.
"This is the Senate at its finest, recognizing this was an opportunity to demonstrate to the public that we could come together, do something important
for the country and do it quickly," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "We were able to put aside our differences not only in the Senate but with our colleagues in the House and with the administration."
"It's tremendous what we've been able to accomplish," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., added.
Bush released a statement supporting the amended plan, saying it "is robust, broad-based, timely, and it will be effective. This bill will help to stimulate consumer spending and accelerate needed business investment."
The logjam broke quickly after Reid concluded Thursday morning that he could not find one more Republican vote to approve consideration of a more expensive plan crafted by the Senate. Instead, the Senate added nearly $6 billion in benefits to the package fashioned by Bush, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The legislation would provide $600 payments for individuals - $1,200 for couples - plus $300 for each child younger than 17. It would begin to phase out eligibility at $75,000 in adjusted gross income for individuals and at $150,000 for couples. Workers who can show $3,000 in earned income last year - too little on which to pay income taxes - would be eligible for payments of $300. The payments would be sent out separately from tax refunds.
Businesses would be given generous incentives to invest in new plants and equipment. The Federal Housing Administration and the federally-backed mortgage consolidators Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would be allowed to insure larger home mortgages.
On a 91-6 vote, the Senate added a provision granting $300 checks for seniors, disabled veterans and veterans' widows who could show $3,000 in Social Security or veterans' disability benefits last year. Senators also tightened rules to prevent illegal immigrants from claiming payments. In all, the tax checks will cost the Treasury $105.7 billion, all of which will be added to the budget deficit.
The plan approved Thursday also includes provisions that will temporarily increase the limits on loans backed by government-sponsored mortgage financing companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and on Federal Housing Administration loans.
Under the bill, Fannie and Freddie will be able to guarantee mortgages for as much as $729,750 in areas of the country designated as "high cost." For the past three years, the so-called "conforming" loan limit has been $417,000 in most of the country, including in California.
As a result, many home buyers in the high-price Bay Area have been ineligible for conforming loans, which typically carry lower interest rates than non-conforming or "jumbo" loans. Many housing advocates in California expect that raising the conforming-loan limit will allow more residents to afford homes, and will help speed recovery of the state's real estate market.
In addition, the new bill will allow the FHA to guarantee loans of up to $729,750 in certain areas. Before the boom and bust in subprime lending, FHA loans were often the first choice of borrowers with damaged credit. But they have scarcely been used at all in high-price places such as Silicon Valley, because their price ceilings have been too low to accommodate the area's purchase prices.
Both changes will be effective through Dec. 31 of this year.
Senate Democrats had sought a considerably larger package than the one approved Thursday. It would have included an extension of unemployment insurance, billions of dollars in energy tax credits and federally backed bonds for home construction. It also would have ensured that low-income seniors, veterans and workers who earn too little to pay income tax would have received the same size check, $500, as working individuals. It would have doubled eligibility thresholds, to $150,000 for individuals and $300,000 for couples.
But when a filibuster of that plan survived by a single vote, House Democratic leaders publicly pressured their Senate colleagues to scale back their ambitions and move fast.
"There is no reason for any more delay on this," Pelosi warned Thursday in a public break with Senate colleagues. "I don't think any change in the bill is really worth the delay."
Reid had raised eyebrows last month when he promised final passage of a stimulus bill by the time Congress leaves for its Presidents' Day break Feb. 15. Lawmakers beat the deadline by a week.
"The news is, we got there. We got there in record time," McConnell said.
Mercury News Staff Writer Sue McAllister and the Associated Press contributed to this report.