Senate Democrats, mocked over trying to stimulate the economy with $475 million to fight smoking and sexually transmitted diseases, removed the programs from the economic recovery package on Tuesday. But the money remains.
And, yes, it can still be tapped to help smokers quit and to prevent the spread of STDs.
Under the revised legislation, the secretary of health and human services can dole out the nearly half-billion dollars on prevention of any disease, including STDs, and on a wide array of smoking-related ailments from cancer to hypertension.
“It’s a shell game,” said Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. “That’s why this bill needs to be stopped. That’s just one of the reasons.”
Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Appropriations health subcommittee and a chief supporter of the programs, acknowledged that the funds still could end up paying for his pet projects.
“Whatever works,” the Iowa Democrat said. “It would be up to the secretary.”
Mr. Harkin said the anti-smoking and STD programs were lightning rods for criticism and should never have been listed in the bill. “Just put everything in and let the secretary decide what works. It makes sense to me,” he said.
The flap is just one battle front on the stimulus plan as Republicans push for a major rewrite of President Obama’s $885 billion bill.
Republicans say it is too expensive and doles out money on a “Democratic wish list” that does little to boost the economy.
Mr. Obama said Tuesday that Congress needs to “improve” the bill — acknowledging problems that he and congressional Democrats had earlier disregarded.
Fighting back against reports of wasteful spending, Mr. Obama gave interviews to the television and cable news networks, saying the projects that Republicans and some conservative Democrats are challenging actually amount to “less than 1 percent of the overall package.”
He defended spending on the arts and items such as weatherizing homes, arguing that the latter creates jobs and saves energy, which he said would reduce dependence on foreign oil.
Senators on both sides of the aisle said the extra disease-prevention spending could be targeted for elimination as they take up scores of amendments, a process that was expected to last late into the night Tuesday.
“There will be amendments to take out provisions that don’t pass the smell test,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, said when he learned of the lingering dollars for the Health and Human Services Department.
The final version of the bill will not emerge until late in the week for a vote.
That bill will have to be reconciled with the House’s $819 billion version, which passed last week with no Republican support.
Democratic leaders want the stimulus on the president’s desk by Feb. 13, when Congress takes a weeklong recess.
“The American people are starting to really rise up,” Mr. Ensign said, referring to recent polls, such as a Gallup Poll released Tuesday that showed that a majority of Americans want the bill either changed dramatically or blocked.
“If the Democrats don’t change the bill dramatically, they could pay a heavy price for this,” he said.
Senate Republicans won the first stimulus skirmish Tuesday, defeating an amendment that would have added $25 billion for more transportation projects, a popular economic remedy that couldn’t survive concerns about the bill’s ballooning price tag.
The amendment, which was offered by top Democrats, died in a near party-line vote, falling two votes short of the 60 needed.
The added $25 billion for highway and mass transit, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Dianne Feinstein of California, answered criticism that the bill did not deliver on Mr. Obama’s promise of New Deal-style public works to create jobs quickly.
The money would have upped highway spending from $27 billion to $40 billion and transit spending from $8.4 billion to $13.4 billion.
Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, said the measure got nixed because the extra spending was not offset by cuts elsewhere in the bill.
“The lack of an offset gave some people a reason and others an excuse [to vote against it],” said Mr. Nelson, who voted for the amendment but also is part of a bipartisan effort to cut tens of billions of dollars from the bill.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the funding would be reintroduced.
A group of Senate Republicans presented an alternative $445 billion stimulus plan, which would cut all workers’ payroll taxes as well as slash corporate taxes and rates for lower-income tax brackets.
The alternative was sponsored by Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, John Thune of South Dakota, Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mel Martinez of Florida.
It also would extend unemployment insurance and food stamp benefits - measures popular with Democrats - but the bill faced an uphill battle to replace Mr. Obama’s package.
“I’ll look at it,” Mr. Baucus said.