- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2009

Hours after President Obama took the case for his economic rescue package to the Indiana heartland, the Senate on Monday turned back a Republican effort to block the bill, brushing aside criticism the $838 billion plan misspends billions of dollars on items ranging from fighting Mexican gun-runners to buying golf carts for federal workers.

In a critical victory for Mr. Obama, the Senate voted 61-36 to cut off further debate on the bill, with three Republicans — Sens. Susan M. Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Pennsylvania’s Sen. Arlen Specter — joining 56 Democrats and two independents to provide the three-fifths supermajority needed to push the bill forward.

The vote on the bill, the centerpiece of Mr. Obama’s plan to revive the beleaguered U.S. economy, was considered so tight that ailing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrats, returned briefly to the Senate chamber to cast his vote.

Key to passage 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 that won just enough Republican votes to advance the legislation shaved more than $100 billion from the package. But the price tag remained some $8 billion higher than the House-passed version and included scores of spending items Republicans argued would do little to boost the economy.

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

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

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

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 gun-runners; and $300 million for the federal government to buy hybrid and battery cars, including golf carts.

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

“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.”

He noted that other programs, such as $13.9 billion for Pell Grants for college education and $13 billion to school disabled children, would likely secure permanent spending increases because of the political hazard posed by scaling them back next year.

“That’s $26.9 billions with just those two,” Mr. Enzi said. “That used to be big money around here.”

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.

In the House-Senate conference expected to begin almost immediately after the final Senate vote on the package expected Tuesday, the strength of the House Democrats’ voting position could paradoxically prove a weakness.

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

Senate Democrats will need to hold on secure at least 60 votes to ensure final passage of the bill.

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 over $800 billion.

Nebraska’s Mr. Nelson said, “I don’t know that there has to be a compromise” with the House.

Mr. Nelson said the fact that some criticize the bill for being too big while others say 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 President 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.

The House bill contains about $100 billion more in new spending and nearly $100 billion less in tax cuts than the Senate bill. 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. The House bill is also more generous in the terms of the “Making Work Pay” tax credit proposed by Mr. Obama.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said that, “on the whole, the amendment process strengthened the legislation.”

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

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.

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