Senate action was slated for Friday evening near 5:30 p.m. After days of negotiation and hand-holding, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) remained confident his fragile 60-vote bipartisan coalition would prevail.
Friday’s continued partisan divide in the House was extraordinary given all the changes made in the package since it first left the House in January. New tax breaks were added in negotiations with the Senate, spending substantially reduced and the overall cost of the package scaled back by more than $30 billion.
Republican aides had predicted this week that 10 to 20 moderates could join in support. But the grassroots pressure from conservatives has been immense, raising fears of Republican primary challenges. The result appears to be a hardening of positions—dramatized Thursday by New Hampshire Republican Sen. Judd Gregg’s withdrawal as Obama’s nominee as Commerce secretary.
Liberal Democrats accused the GOP of waging a war to weaken the new president even as he is struggling with a dangerous economy. Punctuating the partisan split was the fact that fewer of the Democratic “Blue Dog” fiscal conservatives opposed the revised bill.
Just 7 Democrats opposed the bill, compared to 11 last month, and those 7 included at least one liberal, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, who was upset with the adjustments made in negotiations with the Senate
Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who has been a thorn in the side of the leadership and sharply critical of the first House bill, voted for the measure Friday, describing it as “better and more targeted than the original bill and it is much closer to the president’s original request.”
“Congress has a lot to learn from President Obama about transparency, accountability and bipartisanship, but this is a vote to keep that dialog open.”
For Obama, the massive bill, filling close to 1,000 pages, represents a vital beachhead as he tries to cope with a collapsing economy and teetering banking system. But the still partisan opposition also makes it a poltical gamble, betting heavily that it can slow the rise in unemployment and begin to lay the foundation for long-term savings in energy and health information technology.
Final estimates by the Congressional Budget Office, released Friday, peg the total cost at $787.2 billion, 74% of which will be pumped into the economy in 18 months and 91% by October 2011.
An estimated $287 billion would be distributed in the form of tax cuts, including a $116 billion tax break to offset payroll taxes for working families worth $400 per individual and $800 for couples.
Another $150 billion is broadly targeted toward infrastructure, running from highway and transit construction to the expansion of broadband and new investments in renewable energy. Governors and local school districts stand to benefit from $90 billion in added Medicaid funds over the next two years as well as an estimated $53.6 billion fiscal stabilization.
Unemployment benefits are extended for the long term jobless and increased by about $25 a week. At a cost of $20 billion, food stamp benefits are increased temporarily by 10% and a new $25 billion initiative seeks to help workers, laid off recently, to meet COBRA payments required to maintain health insurance for their families.
“I hope this bill works, I really do,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner, but the Ohio Republican warned the rushing to act had ignored less costly conservative alternatives. “We owe it to small business and we owe it to ourselves to get this right,” Boehner said. “Bad process leads to bad policy, and that’s what we have here in by view.”
“Bad policy that will drive up the debt and put all f this cost on our kids and grand kids….I hope it works, but I surely have my doubts.”
Democrats countered that Congress had already waited too long –stymied by veto threats in the last year of the Bush administration. And that the deepening recession had become the worst economic crisis since post-World War II and threatened to slip toward the hardships of the Great Depression in the ‘30s.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) read excerpts from the famed historian Arthur Schlesinger’s account of those years when then President Herbert Hoover suggested a good joke, good song or good poem could shake the country from its decline. And the 82-year old dean of the House, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) recalled serving as a page in the chamber when his father was a congressman in the 1930s.
“Hardship was terrifying. It was the worst economic experience in the history of this country,” Dingell told the House. “Let’s learn from history, my dear friends and colleagues.”
“Those who have studied that Depression tell us that had Congress acted, or the administration acted with vigor, that the Depression would have been much shorter and much less severe. We have a chance to learn from that experience.”