The Senate successfully put its stamp on the House economic stimulus package by adding seniors living on Social Security and 250,000 disabled veterans to the rebate-recipient list.
After the Senate and House agreed to the modified package yesterday, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House speaker Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader John Boehner and even Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson gave a last-minute press conference. They touted their great accomplishment and praised themselves for showing they can put political differences aside and put the American people first.
The group of unlikely cohorts standing side by side in front of American flags made a pretty picture. Reid said it was "an example of how government is supposed to work."
The lesson of the last two weeks, though, is that the road to bipartisan agreement can be smooth, but it can also be treacherous.
House leadership and the Bush Administration wanted to keep the package simple in order to stave off controversy and get the job done quickly. There were numerous compromises along the way to achieve that. The end result was a clean, three-part bill with rebates for taxpayers, tax incentives for businesses and increased loan limits for the Federal Housing Authority in response to the sub prime mortgage crisis. The House quickly passed the package with bipartisan support, but then it almost ground to a complete halt in the Senate.
Democrats in the Senate, also known as the world's greatest deliberative body, wanted to start from scratch with their own bill. They lowered the rebates, but raised the caps. They added the seniors and disabled veterans as rebate recipients. They attached low-income heating assistance (LIHEAP), food stamps and unemployment insurance to the package. They also extended tax cuts for investing in renewable energy.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans cried out that the House bill would allow illegal immigrants to receive rebate checks – and that the Senate Democrats were treating the stimulus bill as a Christmas tree … hanging anything they wanted on it. Sure, they supported adding seniors and disabled veterans, but not the rest. The Republicans who eventually supported the Senate proposal were largely from cold, Northeastern states and they were in it for the heating assistance.
Reid vowed angrily before the vote that it was their only chance to pass a stimulus. He hoped that Republicans would cave thinking the political consequences of voting against rebates for most Americans would be too great. When asked if he was bluffing he said: "wait until we have this vote and they'll find out if I'm bluffing."
In the end, Republicans successfully blocked the bill by one vote. The Majority Leader's bluff was called. Reid tried to figure out if he could get one more Republican to cross over, but realized it couldn't be done. Less than twenty-four hours later, a deal was born. The simple House package would stand. The Senate would add seniors and vets and add language to bar illegal immigrants from getting rebates.
And everyone could take the credit.
The president will sign the bill next week. And those rebate checks of up to $600 for individuals and $1200 for couples should start going out in late May.