Saturday, February 07, 2009

Opinion: Is the senate's stimulus package positive progress or a step backwards?

Next Big Hurdle for Stimulus: House-Senate Negotiations

A day after striking a deal with moderate Republicans on a massive but pared-back economic stimulus package, Senate Democratic leaders moved toward a Feb. 9 procedural vote, a vote on final passage a day later and difficult negotiations with the House.

With the backing of three Republican moderates — Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — Democratic leaders have the 60 votes needed to overcome opposition from conservatives who remain opposed to the package.

The exact cost of the compromise remained somewhat in flux as the Senate engaged in three hours of debate Saturday and Democratic leaders put the finishing touches on legislative language. While the revised plan released Friday night carried an estimated cost of about $780 billion, amendments adopted during Senate floor debate are likely to push the total cost past $800 billion. Those additions include a provision sponsored by Johnny Isakson , R-Ga., that would create a $15,000 tax credit for homebuyers.

Majority Leader Harry Reid , D-Nev., was expected to file a motion to limit debate on the package before the Senate adjourned for the day on Saturday, setting the stage for Monday’s pivotal vote.

Democratic leaders want to quickly conclude a House-Senate conference this week and clear the bill before the Presidents Day recess begins next weekend. But meeting that goal will require a heavy lift both procedurally and to sort out substantive differences between the House and Senate packages.

The Senate will vote at 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 9 on a motion to limit debate, or invoke cloture, on an amendment containing the compromise version of the stimulus. Assuming the motion is adopted, the Senate will consider the amendment itself at noon the following day. Republicans are expected to raise a budgetary point of order against the amendment, but Democrats will have the 60 votes needed to override the objection. Then, the Senate will move to a final vote on the amendment.

At the behest of moderates, the Friday night compromise shaved about $108 billion from the original Senate proposal. Appropriators cut $83 billion in discretionary spending from the Senate plan, including funding for school construction and other programs favored by Democrats in the House and Senate. The Finance Committee pared back health care spending provisions by $7 billion, and scaled back the tax cut package by $18 billion.

Democrats appeared to be united behind the latest plan assembled by a group of moderates, despite some grumbling about the changes needed to attract a handful of GOP votes.
“It’s not a perfect bill from my perspective, and I don’t agree with everything that’s in it and everything that came out, but literally we can’t afford to wait any longer to get something passed,” Amy Klobuchar , D-Minn., said on the Senate floor Saturday.

The tradeoffs needed to get enough votes for the plan in the Senate presaged tough bargaining with the House before a final bill is delivered to President Obama, who, according to one lawmaker, signed off on the Senate deal. Top House Democrats were already complaining about the Senate moves before the agreement was formally announced.

The single biggest spending cut to the original Senate plan comes out of a $79 billion state fiscal stabilization allocation that would help states avoid tax increases and cutbacks in education and other high priority services. The compromise trims that funding to $39 billion and sets up a conflict with the House-passed bill that allocates $79 billion.

Another major difference between the House and Senate bills involves school construction. The House allocated $14 billion to renovate, repair and build public schools. The Senate zeroed out the $16 billion its original bill set aside for that purpose.

The compromise also eliminates $3.5 billion for higher education facility modernization and purchase of instructional equipment. The House voted to provide $6 billion for higher education.
The compromise would cut additional funding for Head Start and Early Head Start, programs to prepare children to succeed in school, from $2.1 billion to 1.05 billion. That’s half of the $2.1 billion in the House bill.

The Senate substitute eliminates $5.8 billion in the original measure that would have been spent on grants and contracts to prevent illness through health screenings, education, immunization, nutrition counseling, media campaigns and other activities. The House has set aside $3 billion for prevention and wellness.

Funds to expand the use of electronic record keeping in health care are cut from $5 billion to $3 billion in the substitute, still more than the $2 billion in the House plan. Under the new Senate plan, a national coordinator would distribute the money to pay for technology, planning and training.

The compromise eliminates funding for pandemic flu preparedness, a prominent target of critics who said figuring out how to increase the supply of vaccine would not create jobs. The House bill includes $900 million for flu, and the original Senate proposal had $870 million.

The Senate substitute zeroes out $2.25 billion in funding for a neighborhood stabilization program, which would have provided funds to states, local units of government and organizations to purchase and rehabilitate abandoned and foreclosed upon homes. The House allocated $4.19 billion for the program.

In the compromise, funding to increase broadband access in rural areas and other underserved parts of the country is reduced by $2 billion, from $9 billion to $7 billion. That’s still more than twice as much as the $3.175 billion in the House bill.

The Senate proposal also trims additions to the Byrne justice assistance grant program, which provides formula funding to state and local police. The compromise would cut $450 million from the Byrne grants, reducing funding from $1.5 billion to $1.05 billion, according to information provided by Ben Nelson , D-Neb., an author of the compromise. The House allocated $3 billion for Byrne grants.

Other differences that will have to be resolved in conference include the additional funding for a federal program that provides home weatherization services to increase energy efficiency for low-income families. The Senate allocates $2.9 billion for the program, while the House bill has $6.2 billion.

The Senate bill includes $2 billion for FutureGen, a near-zero emissions, coal-fired plant that backers want to build in Mattoon, Ill. The project has been a priority for Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin , D-Ill., and for Obama when he was an Illinois senator. The House bill does not include the project.

Unlike the House bill, the Senate version does not include additional funds for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps low-income families pay utility bills. The House bill has another $1 billion for the program.

Kathleen Hunter, Lydia Gensheimer, Bart Jansen, Catharine Richert and Edward Epstein contributed to this story.