By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
The House overwhelmingly approved a $146 billion shot in the arm for the nation's ailing economy yesterday, sending a stimulus package to the Senate with a bipartisan appeal not to slow down the bill with significant changes.
The 385 to 35 vote marked a rare moment of bipartisan comity in the House, as Democrats and Republicans took to the floor to praise the cooperation shown by their leaders and the Bush administration in forging a package of tax rebates and business investment incentives.
The bill would pump $146 billion into the economy this year and $15 billion next year, before recouping some of that money as businesses begin paying taxes on the investments they are expected to make under the plan, according to the Joint Tax Committee. The package would cost $117 billion over 10 years.
But behind that amity was growing concern that the Senate would make changes that, at best, would force the package into House-Senate negotiations and, at worst, would court a presidential veto.
"My concern is that we need to get this bill out of the Senate and on my desk so the checks can get in the hands of our consumers and our businesses can be assured of the incentive necessary to make investments," President Bush told reporters in the Oval Office.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) increased pressure on senators to accept the bill approved by the House and to send it to Bush by week's end.
"If we heap too much on top of the package, it will then take us deeply into debt," Pelosi said. "I think it's a good day for us here. Let's hope the Senate takes our lead from us."
But senators from both parties said they want to alter the measure -- first today, when the Senate Finance Committee takes up its own stimulus proposals, then tonight, when the issue will reach the Senate floor.
"I understand [McConnell's] point that we don't want to somehow derail the package, but on the other hand, some of the changes the Finance Committee is looking at would make the House package better," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
Under the House stimulus plan, most workers would receive $600 from the government -- the sum would be $1,200 for couples, plus $300 per child. Eligibility for the full payment would be capped at $75,000 in adjusted gross income for individuals and $150,000 for couples. Workers with at least $3,000 in income last year who earned too little to pay taxes would receive $300, plus $300 per child. Businesses would receive $45 billion in tax incentives to invest in new plants and equipment.
The bill also includes measures to allow the Federal Housing Administration and the federally backed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage consolidators to insure larger mortgages.
The Senate appears deeply divided over whether to accept the House plan or to press forward with its own. The Finance Committee package would reduce most of the tax rebates to $500 per person but would offer them to virtually everyone, including low-income seniors and the affluent. The Senate version also includes a 13-week extension of unemployment benefits, another provision dropped from the House-White House compromise.
It would add $161.3 billion to the economy this year and $34.4 billion next year. The Senate plan would cost $150.5 billion over 10 years.
That bill has caused some rancor of its own, especially the provision that would lift the House's income eligibility limits. "To take off the caps causes me to want to gag," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). He said other Democratic senators have let Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) know about their own "gag reflexes."
But the idea of allowing poor seniors to receive payments has powerful appeal. Collins said her offices in Maine have been flooded by calls from retirees demanding to know why the House package leaves them out.
Senators from both parties want to make more changes, including the addition of housing provisions, food-stamp extensions, money for infrastructure and even amendments that would make Bush's first-term tax cuts permanent.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) says she has the votes to extend renewable energy tax credits worth as much as $6.2 billion over two years. Collins, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) and Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) will join five Democrats today to demand the inclusion of $3.6 billion in heating assistance for the poor. Snowe said she will also support an amendment by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) that would grant disabled veterans the tax payment.
"I understand the need for speed, but that doesn't mean the people in the United States Senate don't get their input," Snowe said.
Baucus defended his approach, saying it would be simpler and fairer to give $500 to almost everyone, including more than 20 million retirees who pay no income taxes because they do not earn $3,000.
"The House rebate measure is extremely complicated," he said. "People will be so confused. They won't know what their rebate check is . . . and they'll be very upset when their neighbors are getting a little more in a check than somebody else."
Reid plans to bring up the House bill, then allow Baucus to offer the Finance Committee bill as a substitute, a move that would probably require 60 votes. McConnell has been leaning hard on Republicans to oppose the committee's plan, force a quick vote on the House bill and send it to Bush by the weekend.
"I can safely say that a significant majority of my conference thinks that Speaker Pelosi and Congressman Boehner did a pretty good job and are persuaded that this is one of those rare instances in which we ought to rise above ourselves and do something quickly," he said.
Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.