By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2008
A $158 billion economic stimulus plan drafted by Senate Democrats that included relief for low-income seniors, disabled veterans and the unemployed was blocked by a Republican filibuster last night when the Senate fell a single vote short of the 60 needed to consider the measure.
The defeat by the narrowest of margins nearly ensures passage of a less expensive stimulus plan fashioned by President Bush and House leaders, though the Senate may make some changes. But it keeps the government on track to begin sending hundreds of dollars in payments to most Americans this spring.
"Given a chance to act as recession looms, more than 40 Republicans today said no to helping 20 million seniors and no to 250,000 disabled veterans. They said no to those who have lost their jobs and no to small business," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said after the vote.
The Senate package, which included numerous provisions not offered by the House plan, attracted powerful supporters. Automakers Ford and General Motors, home builders, Realtors and mortgage bankers joined the AARP to press Republicans to embrace the Senate measure. Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) left the campaign trail to make rare appearances in the Senate chamber.
Reid tried to ratchet up the pressure on senators, telling Republicans that they would not be given the opportunity to have separate votes on whether to add payments for seniors and disabled veterans. They would have only two choices, he said: Accept the whole Senate package or the House bill intact.
The Senate plan attracted the votes of all 51 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, as well as of eight Republicans, but that was not enough. It was clear the Democrats would fall short when Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), whom they had been courting for days, registered his opposition late in the tally.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president, did not show up for the vote. Asked about his time away from the Senate, McCain, who was heading back to Washington aboard his campaign plane, said: "It's very hard. Obviously, I've missed a lot of votes. There's no doubt about it."
The final tally was 58 to 41, after Reid changed his vote to no, a parliamentary move that allows him to bring up the measure in the future.
The differences between the $146 billion stimulus plan approved by the House and the version crafted last week by the Senate Finance Committee are fairly narrow.
The House package would provide $600 payments for individuals -- $1,200 for couples -- plus $300 for each child. It would begin to phase out eligibility at $75,000 in adjusted gross income for individuals and at $150,000 for couples. Workers who can show $3,000 in earned income last year would be eligible for checks of $300.
Businesses would be offered tax incentives to invest in new plants and equipment, while the Federal Housing Administration and federally chartered Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would be authorized to insure larger mortgages.
The Senate version would provide $500 for individuals and $1,000 for couples, but it would double the size of the eligibility caps. The working poor, some of whom may not pay any income taxes, would be eligible for the same checks, as would seniors and disabled veterans with $3,000 in Social Security or veterans benefits. Businesses would be offered investment tax incentives and would be allowed to write off more losses, which drew the support of large corporations.
The Senate version would also extend jobless benefits at a cost of $14.5 billion over two years. It would provide $1 billion in heating assistance for the poor, allow states to issue federally backed housing construction bonds, and take steps to ensure that illegal immigrants do not receive payments.
"Are you going to throw Grandpa and Grandma off the train, and the disabled veteran who put his life on the line for this country?" Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) asked opponents of the package.
But the Senate Finance Committee also added billions of dollars in energy tax credit extensions, including an incentive for marginal oil and gas wells, as well as a measure that would reimburse coal companies for interest on wrongfully levied export taxes. Those measures, although adopted with bipartisan support, opened the package to criticism from administration and Republican leaders, who accused Democrats of slowing down the promised payments by loading the bill with sweetheart projects.
Over two years, the Senate package would cost about $204 billion, about $40 billion more than the House bill's two-year cost.
"Where's that money coming from?" asked Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). "Nobody can deny that we're going to go to the markets, we're going to borrow the money and there's going to be very little payback. . . . Is there another way we can stimulate our economy without stealing from our kids?"
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the package "a Christmas tree of legislative goodies that might not even get signed" by the president.
In the face of rising pressure, Republican leaders made a significant concession. Whereas they once demanded that the Senate pass the House bill and immediately send it to the president, they now favor the extension of benefits to seniors and veterans and the controls on claims by illegal immigrants. Such changes would force the stimulus package into House-Senate negotiations, which Bush and House leaders had wanted to avoid.
Reid must now decide whether to make good on his threat to immediately move to the House package or allow the Senate to make piecemeal changes through amendment votes. Republicans who voted for and against the Senate Finance Committee measure were betting yesterday that Reid's threat is meaningless.
"Can you imagine AARP, can you imagine our veterans letting the Democrats get away [with that], when we're willing to help them and let them be part of the package?" scoffed Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). "I can't imagine."
"This is the Senate, not the House. It's not an all-or-nothing place," said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), a top target of Democrats in the November elections.
John Rother, AARP policy director, confirmed that the group will push for a separate vote on adding payments for seniors to the House plan.
Democratic Senate aides said that they expect Reid to relent today, but only after the GOP absorbs the morning's news headlines on the filibuster.
Staff writers Paul Kane and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.