House, Senate Work on Reconciling Stimulus Bills

With the Senate's passage Tuesday of a massive economic stimulus bill, the legislation heads to a House-Senate conference. Reconciling the different chambers' bills won't be easy. The Senate took the House bill, added tax cuts, cut spending and overall increased the cost. The three Republicans who helped approve the Senate bill hold most of the cards.

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The gigantic economic stimulus bill that President Obama took to the people this week has made it through both houses of Congress. It passed the Senate yesterday after already clearing the House. Now the two must get together on a single bill. NPR's David Welna has this report.

DAVID WELNA: A few hours before the Senate passed it's $838 billion stimulus package, Majority Leader Harry Reid went to the White House with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They met there with President Obama, and according to Reid, the meeting was all about Congress getting a stimulus package to the president's desk as fast as possible.

First though, the Senate and House have to work out their differences and approve a final version.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): I think the differences really are fairly minor, and we're going to work very hard to resolve those differences as soon as we can.

WELNA: Republicans have agreed to take part in a conference committee to merge the two chambers' stimulus bills. But House Minority Leader John Boehner made clear that he and his fellow Republicans remain adamantly opposed to that measure, which the House passed without a single GOP vote.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): The plan that's currently on the table tries to take advantage of the crisis in our economy to enact a series of liberal policy proposals that have nothing to do with economic recovery.

WELNA: House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, who's on the conference committee, said that while Republicans think the stimulus bill is too large, he fears that in fact it may be too small.

Representative DAVID OBEY (Democrat, Wisconsin): It is not perfect by any means, and we have substantial, but I hope not overpowering differences between us and the Senate.

WELNA: Those differences are not so much in the size of the two chambers' stimulus plans; the Senate bill costs only about 2 percent more than the House bill. It's more that because Senate Democrats needed to attract a few Republican votes to pass their bill they agreed to a compromise. It boosted the share of tax cuts in their stimulus plan to 44 percent, compared to 34 percent in the House's version.

And to make room for those tax cuts, spending to help states starved for revenue was slashed in half, while money for modernizing schools was eliminated. House Democrat Peter DeFazio of Oregon says those cuts make it much harder to reconcile the two chambers' stimulus bills.

Representative PETER DEFAZIO (Democrat, Oregon): It won't be settled easily if the Senate insists on the changes they've made. I mean, drastic cuts to education, school construction. I mean, their version of the bill has a lot fewer jobs and jobs potential than does ours. So if they're willing to move back in our direction, which I think would be reasonable and I believe the president would support, then sure, it'll go easily.

WELNA: That's very easy to say, says Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, if you ignore the need for compromise. Nelson helped craft the deal that secured the three Republican votes that ensured the measure's passage in the Senate.

Senator BEN NELSON (Democrat, Nebraska): If they can come over here and find three other Republicans and do the vote counting, they can probably put anything in it that they like.

WELNA: One of those three Republican senators who voted for the stimulus yesterday was Maine's Susan Collins. She made clear she intends to hold the line on the size of whatever bill the two chambers come up with.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): I'm not saying what's in, what's out. I'm just saying that the bottom line must be under 800 billion.

WELNA: Maine's other GOP senator, Olympia Snowe, also voted for the stimulus.

Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE (Republican, Maine): Suffice it to say is, certainly the final package should be consistent with the contours of the Senate-passed package.

WELNA: Yesterday the two Maine senators joined Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, the other Republican who voted for the Senate stimulus, for a meeting in Majority Leader Reid's office with three senior White House officials. Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was with those Republicans at the meeting.

Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana): They were there in the room so they're just basically reinforcing their views. But you know, I'm willing to talk and see if there's a way to accommodate the majority party as well as the White House. We're just talking.

WELNA: Majority Leader Reid says he hopes most of the differences between the Senate and the House can be worked out by later today, but he would not say when Congress will send the stimulus package to President Obama.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): I have no deadlines. The only deadline I have is we're going to complete this legislation before we have our recess.

WELNA: And if they don't, Reid says there will be no recess, which is due to start Monday.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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Senate Approves Stimulus Plan

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.

Bipartisan Support

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

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