The Senate approved an $838 billion economic stimulus bill with scant Republican backing Tuesday, setting the stage for negotiations to work out differences with a bill already passed by the House.
The Senate bill passed on a 61-37 vote, with only three Republicans voting for the package. The approval came as President Obama tried to rally support for quick passage of his economic recovery plan in a Florida community dragged down by double-digit foreclosures and unemployment.
Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania broke with their party and supported the bill.
Specter said in an opinion piece in The Washington Post on Monday that he had no choice but to support the package. "I am supporting the economic stimulus package for one simple reason: The country cannot afford not to take action," he wrote.
House, Senate Bills Differ
The Senate and House bills have some key difference that may be difficult to reconcile. The Senate version contains more tax cuts — including a $15,000 tax credit for homebuyers — and it cuts spending for school construction and state governments.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she wants to restore some spending, criticizing the Senate for cutting money to rebuild schools.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said finding a compromise won't be easy.
"Obviously, we are confronted with the reality of three people saying, 'Look, if you change anything we are jumping ship.' That is something that will change the tenor of the conference, and that's not a position we ought to be in," he said, referring to the three Republicans who supported the bill.
Hoyer said negotiations on a compromise could go through the middle of next week.
Obama Wants Quick Passage
But Obama has said he wants to sign the bill into law by Presidents Day — and he's appealing directly to the public for support.
Speaking in Fort Myers, Fla., Obama said the plan would save or create 3 million to 4 million jobs over the next two years, extend unemployment benefits, provide job training assistance, provide a tax credit for college students and give tax relief for middle-class workers and families.
"Folks here in Fort Myers and across America need help. They need action, and they need it now," Obama said.
Lee County, where Fort Myers is located, illustrates the key weaknesses in the U.S. economy. The community has been stung by double-digit unemployment and foreclosures, as well as falling home values. The county's unemployment rate stands at 10 percent, and the home foreclosure rate is 12.5 percent, according to The Miami Herald.
Obama said his plan would create jobs building wind turbines and solar panels, upgrading schools, computerizing the health care system, building broadband Internet lines and rebuilding crumbling roads, bridges, dams and levees.
"This plan will put people back to work right now," Obama told the crowd. He also promised to unveil a housing strategy in the coming weeks that would aid homeowners facing foreclosure, not just banks.
Joined by Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, Obama encouraged bipartisan support for his plan, saying, "When the town is burning, you don't check party labels. Everybody needs to grab a hose."
It was the second day in a row that the president reached out for public support. On Monday, he held a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind., where the unemployment rate is more than 15 percent because of the steep decline in the manufacturing of recreational vehicles.
"The situation we face could not be more serious. We have inherited an economic crisis as deep and as dire as any since the Great Depression," he told the 1,700 Hoosiers gathered for the town hall meeting.
And Monday night, he took to the airwaves in a televised appeal for support.
Obama also plans to visit two Illinois communities later this week as he tries to pressure Congress to act quickly on the plan.
From NPR and wire reports