Senate passes stimulus bill

WASHINGTON — The Senate, with only scant Republican support, passed an $838 billion economic-stimulus plan Tuesday that would provide significant tax breaks for new car and home buyers but sharply trim billions in aid that states have been seeking. The vote was 61-37.

The House of Representatives passed similar legislation last month, and a negotiating committee of top congressional tax and budget experts plans to begin reconciling differences immediately.

Their goal is to produce legislation that costs no more than $838 billion _ the House version was $819 billion _ by the end of the week, so that President Barack Obama can sign it Monday, on Presidents Day.

The Senate vote came on a historic day, as the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department unveiled details of their effort to bolster the banking industry and credit markets and Obama took his stimulus campaign to Fort Myers, Fla., which has been rocked by the mortgage foreclosure crisis.

At the Capitol, the drama now shifts to the negotiators, and the final Senate debate Tuesday illustrated the difficulties that they face.

Part of the problem is political, as the vote reinforced the notion that despite Obama’s efforts at bipartisanship, the legislation is very much a Democratic bill.

Democrats hailed the bill as historic and necessary. “Every generation must face up to its own challenge. This economic emergency is ours,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.

“Let us pass this bill and rise to the economic challenge of our generation.”

Most Republicans, however, dismissed the measure as loaded with spending that would do little to stimulate the economy.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, noted that the bill costs “$1 billion per page.”

Republicans railed against such inclusions as $200 million to consolidate the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, $100 million for grants to small shipyards and about $1 billion to improve parks.

“In every version of the stimulus we’ve seen, wasteful spending has attracted the most attention,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. “But even more worrisome to many is the permanent expansion of government programs.”

Republicans, though, control only 178 of the House’s 435 seats and 41 of the 100 Senate seats, giving them little say in the final product.

More crucial will be the three Republican senators who became the only Republicans in either house of Congress to vote for a stimulus bill, Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter.

They agreed to join the Democrats after winning agreement to cut about $110 billion from the original Democratic-authored Senate package last week.

They’ve signaled that they’re reluctant to see those cuts restored, however, which could prove a problem for House Democrats.

Collins, for instance, has made it clear to the White House that, as she put it, if the bill ends up with “a lot of the unnecessary expenditures crammed back in it” and less tax relief, “the Democrats will lose my vote.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has called some of the Senate cuts “very damaging,” suggesting that negotiations will be rough.

States took the biggest hit in the Senate package, as members halved the House’s $79 billion State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, aimed at helping states pay education bills, and eliminated a $20 billion school construction fund.

The Senate offers more generous tax breaks, notably $70 billion to help some taxpayers avoid the alternative minimum tax this year, a tax credit of $15,000 or 10 percent of the purchase price of a new home and a tax break for new car buyers.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., conceded that the AMT fix probably will stay in the final bill _ it has long had broad support _ but the fate of the car and home tax breaks is uncertain. States and education groups also are lobbying fiercely to get money restored.

Looming over the deliberations is uneasiness about whether the bill will prod the economy significantly.

A Congressional Budget Office analysis of the Senate measure found that it would add $214 billion to the projected $1.2 trillion fiscal 2009 deficit, and add another $441.2 billion next year.

(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.