- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Senate on Monday defeated Republicans’ efforts to block the massive economic rescue package, as President Obama used the bully pulpit to trumpet the merits of the stimulus bill, which Republicans say is still rife with scattershot spending that won’t help the beleaguered U.S. economy.

In a critical victory for Mr. Obama, the Senate on Monday voted 61-36 to cut off further debate on the bill, setting up a final passage vote Tuesday after brushing aside criticism the $838 billion plan misspends billions of dollars on items ranging from fighting Mexican gunrunners to buying golf carts for federal workers.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said Senate debate and the amendment process addressed concerns raised about the measure and strengthened it, but that it was time to pump the money into the economy.

“We have to do our utmost to move this as quickly as possible,” he said. “We have every opportunity to complete this by Friday.”

Three Republicans - Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania - joined 56 Democrats and two independents to provide the three-fifths supermajority needed to push the bill forward. The Senate vote on the bill was considered so tight that ailing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, returned briefly to the Senate chamber to cast his vote.

Senate passage of the package is expected to lead to a contentious conference with House Democratic leaders to reconcile the two starkly different bills approved by the two chambers. The House bill has $100 billion more in new spending and nearly $100 billion less in tax cuts than the Senate version.

“Today, my colleagues tell me I’m supposed to be giddy that we’re only spending $827 billion,” Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican, said on the Senate floor. “Frankly, I’ve had enough of this bailout baloney.”

In a day that included his first prime-time news conference and first town hall as president, Mr. Obama said fast action by Congress is needed to prevent millions of more job losses, to protect homeowners and to avert a deeper crisis.

“It is only government that can break the vicious cycle where lost jobs lead to people spending less money which leads to even more layoffs. And breaking that cycle is exactly what the plan thats moving through Congress is designed to do,” Mr. Obama said Monday night.

Congressional Democrats complained that Republicans dominated the public debate over the massive package by highlighting the bill’s spending. Most of those items remain in the bill.

While public opinion seesawed over the rescue package, Mr. Obama’s popularity never suffered.

A Gallup Poll released Monday showed that 67 percent of Americans approved of Mr. Obama’s handling of the economic stimulus, compared with 48 percent approval of congressional Democrats and 31 percent approval of congressional Republicans.

However, a Rasmussen Reports survey released Monday found that 62 percent of respondents wanted more tax cuts and less spending in the bill and 48 percent said increased government spending will hurt the economy, positions more closely aligned with Republicans.

Mr. Obama engaged in some long-distance lobbying, traveling to Elkhart, Ind., where the unemployment rate has tripled in the past year to 15.4 percent. He pledged to a raucous crowd that he would fulfill his campaign’s promise of change by quickly pushing the deal through Congress to put Americans back to work.

“We’ve had a good debate. Now it’s time to act,” Mr. Obama said at the town hall meeting. “That’s why I am calling on Congress to pass this bill immediately. Folks here in Elkhart and all across America need help right now. They can’t afford to keep on waiting for folks in Washington to get this done.”

Mr. Obama made clear Monday night that he inherited the problem from the Bush administration but that his package will create up to 4 million jobs and help families across the nation. He also knocked the tax cut policies of President Bush and congressional Republicans as contributing to the crisis.

“That is why we have come together around a plan that combines hundreds of billions in tax cuts for the middle class with direct investments in areas like health care, energy, education and infrastructure - investments that will save jobs, create new jobs and new businesses, and help our economy grow again - now and in the future,” Mr. Obama said.

Key to passage of the Senate version was a compromise brokered late last week by Mrs. Collins and centrist Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, to trim back some of the spending to win the critical Republicans votes needed to head off a potential filibuster.

The compromise shaved more than $100 billion from the package. But with added tax breaks, the price tag remained some $19 billion higher than the House-passed version and included scores of spending items Republicans argued would do little to boost the economy.

The revised bill would still spend $2 billion for a near-zero-emissions power plant in Mattoon, Ill.; $200 million for workplace safety programs in Department of Agriculture buildings; $650 million for coupons for consumers to buy converter boxes for digital TV; $10 million to fight Mexican gunrunners; and $300 million for the federal government to buy hybrid and battery-powered cars, including golf carts.

These and other items totaling more than $68 billion were included in a list circulated among Senate Republicans.

The spending trimmed from the bill in the Senate, including $16 billion for school construction and $3.5 billion for higher education facilities, also provoked an outcry from House Democrats.

“To cut those is to do violence to what we were doing for the future,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

Still, the strength of the House Democrats’ voting position could paradoxically prove a weakness when House and Senate negotiators try to hammer out a compromise bill.

Mrs. Pelosi can push through passage of the stimulus bill without any Republican help, as she proved when the House approved its version of the bill Jan. 28 without a single Republican vote. But with the Senate margin so narrow, Senate negotiators cannot make too many concessions if they hope to head off a filibuster when the conference compromise returns to the Senate for a final vote.

Mrs. Collins warned she would oppose the final bill if it strayed too far from the Senate version. She would not support restoring many House spending provisions stripped in the Senate version and would vote against the bill if the price tag for the new spending and tax cuts climbs too high.

Mr. Nelson said the fact that some criticized the bill for being too big while others said it is too small to aid the economy “is a good sign to me that we got it just about right.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said his party had been largely cut out of the drafting of the bill, despite Mr. Obama’s pledge to work in a bipartisan fashion.

“Old habits die hard,” he said, adding that there was a “pretty high comfort level” among both House and Senate Republicans in opposing the package.

Although nominally carrying near-identical price tags - $819 billion in the House and $838 billion in the Senate, according to the Congressional Budget Office - reconciling the two measures could prove difficult.

One major difference: The Senate bill would temporarily limit the bite of the alternative minimum tax for many middle-class filers, at a cost of nearly $70 billion.

The Senate also approved a proposal by Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, to double a tax credit for homebuyers to $15,000 and allow many more homebuyers to qualify. The $35.5 billion tax cut was one of the few Republican victories in the Senate debate and one a number of House Democrats have targeted for elimination.

The House bill also spending considerably more on aid to states and localities, much of it targeted for school construction and repair.

Congressional Democratic leaders have vowed to keep the House and Senate in session through next week’s planned Presidents Day recess if the stimulus package has not passed by then.

• Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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