WASHINGTON — After a sharply partisan debate on Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed an $819 billion economic stimulus package designed to create millions of jobs quickly and give consumers more money to spend.
The vote was 244 to 188. None of the House's 178 Republican members voted yes.
Despite a fresh plea for cooperation from President Barack Obama, who insisted that "we don't have a moment to spare," Republicans spurned the Democratic bill.
The White House tried hard to soften the partisan edges. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel met privately on Tuesday night with a small group of GOP moderates, but the effort was futile.
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"The bill is extremely expensive for what you get out of it," said Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del.
The measure, which now goes to the Senate — where it's likely to be changed considerably — has $544 billion in spending and $275 billion in tax cuts. Highlights include a $79 billion State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, which would help state governments with education and other expenses, while $30 billion more would be targeted for highway and bridge construction projects.
The bill also gives most taxpayers breaks of $500 each on their payroll taxes and increases tax breaks for college tuition, first-time homebuyers and child care.
The bill originally was estimated to cost $825 billion, but a more precise calculation by the Congressional Budget Office put it at $819 billion.
Democrats hailed the measure as immediate and necessary relief, as well as the first big triumph of Obama's eight-day-old presidency.
"Today we are passing historic legislation that honors the promises our new president made from the steps of the Capitol," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
She estimated that the bill would help create and save 3 million to 4 million jobs during the next two years.
Democrats backed up their claims with a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which said that 64 percent of the funds would be pumped into the economy by Sept. 30, 2010.
The package, said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., "is probably smaller than it ought to be, but it's well worth doing."
Republicans said that the spending would trickle out too slowly and the tax cuts weren't generous enough.
"Most Republicans will oppose this bill for one reason: It won't work," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., the chairman of the House Republican Conference, which helps promote party policies.
Republicans cited CBO estimates that the stimulus would cause the federal deficit, already estimated to reach $1.2 trillion this year, to be at $170 billion more this year and $819 billion more through 2019.
"We're using our economic woes to grow government spending to epic and historic proportions," charged Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif.
Some of the spending will be "wasteful," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. A plan to provide funds to help consumers convert to digital television "looks like a slush fund to me," he said.
House Republicans proposed an alternative plan that included lower income tax rates for middle and lower income workers, tax credits for home buyers and other tax provisions. It was easily defeated on a party-line vote.
"What good is a tax cut when you don't have a job?" asked House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C.
Freshmen Democrats said that the bill would bring instant help to their beleaguered districts.
"What this bill does is it meets human needs. It does what a just society does; it feeds the hungry, it shelters the homeless and it heals the sick," said Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla.
Underlying the debate was some often angry partisanship. Obama tried to set a new tone on Tuesday when he visited separately with House and then Senate Republicans. On Wednesday, after meeting with business executives at the White House, he again urged cooperation and civility.
"I know that some are skeptical about the size and scale of this recovery plan," he said. "I understand that skepticism, which is why this recovery plan will include unprecedented measures that will allow the American people to hold my administration accountable."
That didn't stop the partisan bickering.
"We welcome the criticism of our Republican friends," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "But let's put that criticism in some context. Republicans have been consistently wrong on economics."
Republicans vigorously contested his views.
The bill "won't create many jobs, but it will create plenty of programs and projects through slow-moving government spending," Boehner said.
Because House rules make it difficult for the minority party to have much influence, and Democrats control 255 seats — 37 more than needed to pass a bill — there was little motivation to cooperate.
Republicans will have more clout in the 100-member Senate: It takes 60 votes to stop a filibuster, and the GOP controls 41 seats. Already, the Senate bill includes $70 billion to help 24 million taxpayers who who'd be subject to the alternative minimum tax this year.
Senate Republicans have signaled that they will try to add other tax cuts, provide more incentives for housing and cut spending.
Among their initiatives is likely to be a plan for the federal government to guarantee the first year or two of 4 percent, 30-year mortgages for new and refinancing homeowners.
"Housing is what got us into this problem in the first place. We should do more to fix housing," said Nevada Sen. John Ensign, the Republican Senate Policy Committee chairman.
Senate consideration of the bill is likely to take all of next week and perhaps beyond. Once a bill is passed, negotiators from both houses will work out a compromise, hoping to craft a final version that can be sent to Obama by mid-February.
House Republicans wouldn't rule out backing a compromise.
"A lot of us would consider voting for the final version," Delaware's Castle said.
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