The House passed and President Obama immediately signed into law Tuesday a $26 billion federal lifeline designed to help states pay salaries for teachers and meet rising Medicaid bills, intensifying an election-year debate over continued government spending aimed at saving jobs.
Although the vote was a victory for Mr. Obama, his top spokesman was sparring with liberal critics who said the president has been a disappointment on addressing the economy and a range of other issues since taking office last year.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, in comments published Tuesday in The Hill newspaper, said Mr. Obama’s critics on the left “should be drug-tested” for comparing him to his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
The remarks prompted an uproar in the liberal blogosphere and led at least one member of Congress to call for Mr. Gibbs‘ resignation.
The spending bill, which required House lawmakers to interrupt their usually sacrosanct August recess for a one-day special session back in Washington, gives cash-strapped states $10 billion to rehire laid-off teachers and prevent future layoffs, while funneling an additional $16 billion to Medicaid programs. Democratic leaders offset the costs of the legislation by slicing other tax credits, reducing food-stamp benefits and - for the first time - redirecting a slice of last year’s $862 billion stimulus fund.
Republicans blasted the bill as nothing more than a payout to teachers unions ahead of November’s elections.
But Democrats said the measure shows their determination to address the jobs crisis as the national unemployment rate remains stuck at 9.5 percent and local governments continue making deep cuts to compensate for lost tax revenues. Backers say the measure could preserve about 160,000 teachers’ posts nationwide.
“We can’t stand by and do nothing while pink slips are given to the men and women who educate our children or keep our communities safe,” Mr. Obama told reporters in the Rose Garden on Tuesday.
“If America’s children and the safety of our communities are your special interests, then it is a special-interest bill,” Mr. Obama added. “But I think those interests are widely shared throughout this country.”
The bill passed largely along party lines, by a vote of 247-161. Two Republicans voted for the bill, while three Democrats joined 158 Republicans in opposition.
By a more bipartisan margin, the House on Tuesday also approved $600 million for 1,500 additional border control agents, surveillance vehicles and other border-security measures.
Despite Mr. Obama’s call that the state aid should “not be a partisan issue,” the $26 billion drew intense criticism from congressional Republicans, who have fought virtually every instance of stimulus spending since Mr. Obama took office. GOP lawmakers argued that repeated federal lifelines to state governments would lead to dependence on the federal Treasury.
“Everyone knows that state budgets have been hit hard, and no one wants teachers or police officers to lose their jobs. But where do the bailouts end?” asked House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.
“At some point, we’ve got to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” Mr. Boehner said.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, said the education funds have too many strings attached and could undermine state budgets. In his state, Mr. Barbour said Tuesday, lawmakers would need to take between $50 million and $100 million out of other public priorities and put it toward education in order to qualify for $98 million in federal assistance.