CQ TODAY ONLINE NEWS
Feb. 11, 2009 – 3:56 p.m.
Senate Passes Stimulus, Setting Up Tough Conference With House
The Senate Tuesday passed an $838 billion economic stimulus bill by 61-37 after adopting a crucial compromise amendment insisted on by moderates, sending the measure into conference with the House.
House and Senate negotiators moved quickly — meeting late into Tuesday night — to begin resolving differences in the wide-ranging package of spending and tax cuts (
“This is an emergency. We have to move this quickly and we have to do it with as much direction as we can,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid , D-Nev., said.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer , D-Md., said Congress could be in session until the middle or end of next week, as leaders have pledged not to leave town until the bill is done. Reid has made a similar threat.
But getting agreement on a final package may prove difficult. Conferees must resolve major differences over the alternative minimum tax, emergency aid for states, education funding and the allocation of money for Medicaid. They must also work through a series of smaller issues, from restrictions on spending on highway beautification projects to the percentage of a college tuition tax credit that should be refundable.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi , D-Calif., said House Democrats would fight to keep initiatives they believe will create jobs, warning that the conference with the Senate would not be a typical “split the difference” affair.
She cited school construction funds cut out of the Senate version, “greening of federal buildings,” health information technology, and extending health benefits as provisions she will fight for. She added that refundable child tax credit, which is less generous in Senate bill, “is important.”
Senators meanwhile are expected to fight to keep the AMT “patch,” which would prevent millions of taxpayers from having to pay the tax in 2009. It’s one of the major reason the Senate bill would spend almost $20 billion more than the $819 billion version the House passed Jan. 28.
Hoyer said he expects the patch will be in the final bill because the Senate has proven in the past that it cannot garner the votes to offset it, as some budget hawks would prefer.
The Senate conferees also have little political leeway to keep the support of three Republicans involved in striking the deal last week – Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — who joined all Democrats in voting to pass the bill.
Collins and Specter have already threatened to oppose the final conference report if it strays too far from the Senate bill, and the conference report will face similar procedural hurdles in the Senate as the original bill, requiring another 60-vote supermajority.
The Senate earlier voted 61-37 to waive a budgetary point of order against the compromise amendment – which shaved about $108 billion from the cost of the original Senate proposal – and then adopted it before moving to final passage.
Hoyer emphasized that the House version of the stimulus would create more jobs than the Senate bill, and said that three senators should not be able to dictate the terms of the bill.
Hoyer said the Senate have moved in the right direction by loosening a provision in the original bill that would have required all stimulus-funded projects to use products made in the United States, and said the issue would be discussed in conference.
Before the vote, the Senate Finance Committee’s ranking Republican, Charles E. Grassley , R-Iowa, objected, on behalf of his more conservative colleagues, to an attempt by Finance Chairman Max Baucus , D-Mont., to win adoption of an manager’s amendment adding a variety of changes to the tax and health spending parts of the bill – even though Grassley clearly supported some of the provisions.
Baucus said the amendment would have reduced the tax burden on companies that purchase their own debt at a discount, reduce the amount of estimated taxes small businesses have to pay every quarter and allow military personnel to claim the proposed “Make Work Pay” payroll tax credit even if their spouse is not a U.S. citizen, among other provisions.
Late into the Evening
House and Senate Democratic negotiators met in the Speaker’s office with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel and White House budget chief Peter Orzsag late into the evening Tuesday, breaking at 9 p.m., working intensely to firm up an overall cap for the package and sort through differences.
“It’s so difficult to talk with a body that is ...controlled by three people. You have no idea,” Ways and Means Committee Charles B. Rangel , D-N.Y., said as he left the meeting, noting that the health and spending portions of the bill were proving most difficult to reconcile.
“There’s no obstacle that’s come up that we cannot resolve with a lot of pain,” he said.
As Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus , D-Mont., left the meeting, he said that $800 billion was the “ballpark” limit for the conference report, and that the final figure might come in a little lower than that. Baucus said that getting a deal by the weekend was the goal understood by everyone involved.
Democrats, led by Obama, have pushed the bill as the best hope for a speedy infusion of aid to the struggling economy. Republicans said the bill would lead to a permanent expansion of government programs that would waste money.
The initial appearance of bipartisan cooperation on the legislation faded quickly into finger-pointing as each side accused the other of being uncooperative.
“Lots of the little porky things have been taken out . . . As for bipartisanship, we have been trying. Lord, we have been trying,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer , D-N.Y., said, noting that Republicans like Charles E. Grassley , R-Iowa, won amendments during the committee and floor debate – yet didn’t vote for the bill. “ What do you want out of us?”
But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell , R-Ky., noted that the bill was “written by some of the longest-serving Democrats in the House of Representative, and it shows. ... The president was right to call for a stimulus, but this bill misses the mark.”
Later, he said the legislation “paints a picture of the Europeanization of America.”
Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the House Republican Conference, said Republicans remain opposed to the stimulus legislation unless significant changes are made in conference. But he also expressed optimism that conferees could craft a plan more to the Republicans’ liking.
Pence pinned his hopes on what he said could be a groundswell of public opposition. “There are hundreds of millions of others who I expect as we are here today” may be contacting their representatives and senators to urge changes, he said.
Obama, for his part, has taken a harder tone in recent days as he has traveled to drum up public support for the plan. “We can’t afford to posture and bicker and resort to the same failed ideas that got us into this mess in the first place. After all, that’s what this election was about. You rejected those ideas because you know they haven’t worked,” Obama said at a rally in Fort Myers, Fla.
At a news conference Monday, Obama said some Republican lawmakers were opposed to any government action to stimulate the economy.
“I know of no Republican in the Congress of the United States that wants to do nothing,” Pence responded.
He insisted House Republicans are willing to compromise on the bill, but offered few specifics. He said Republicans would “accept infrastructure funding as part of the bill at a more significant level than Democrats” and also supported an extension of unemployment insurance.
David Clarke, Richard Rubin and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this story.