Congress Reaches Deal On Stimulus Package

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Congressional Democrats and three Republicans have struck a deal that hands President Obama an early political victory. They agreed on a compromise bill for the gigantic economic stimulus package that the president requested. Their measure will be put to a vote as early as Thursday in the House and Senate, and it's expected to pass in both chambers.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

President Obama looks set to claim an early and decisive political victory. Last night, Congressional Democrats, along with a few key Republicans, struck a deal on a final plan for the gigantic economic stimulus package the president requested. The compromise will be put to a vote as early as today in the House and Senate, and it's expected to pass in both chambers.

NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA: House and Senate negotiators from both parties gathered around a table last night in the Capitol's ornate Lyndon Baines Johnson Room. They were there to formally approve the deal merging the stimulus bills passed by each chamber into one. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reminded them of the political feat it took to come so close to the finishing line.

HARRY REID: The reason that we're today is three very brave people: two senators from Maine and a senator from Pennsylvania.

WELNA: They're the three Republicans who bucked what Reid described as a GOP plan to stiff everybody. Not one Republican senator was to vote for the stimulus plan, just as House Republicans had done. That would've doomed the measure in the Senate, because it needed at least 60 votes to pass, and Democrats have only 58 members in their caucus.

So the votes of those three breakaway senators were crucial, and all three ended up with a considerable say in shaping the size and shape of last night's deal. Susan Collins of Maine is one of the renegades.

SUSAN COLLINS: I'm particularly pleased that we have produced an agreement that has the top line of $789 billion. That is less than either the House or the Senate-passed bills.

WELNA: Another Republican backing the deal, Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, said he would've preferred a much smaller stimulus plan made up of tax cuts.

ARLEN SPECTER: This is obviously a very difficult vote in view of the large deficit and national debt which we have. But I believe it is indispensable that strong action be taken.

WELNA: The final version of the stimulus package is 64 percent spending and 36 percent tax cuts. Maine's other Republican senator, Olympia Snowe, has also endorsed the deal.

OLYMPIA SNOWE: It's right sized because the president is right. If we're losing $2 trillion in demand between this year and next year, then we have to backfill this economy with a fiscal stimulus approach.

WELNA: But GOP Congressional leaders had nothing good to say about the grand compromise that's been struck. House Minority Leader John Boehner said he was very disappointed.

JOHN BOEHNER: It appears that they've made a bad bill worse by reducing the amount of tax relief for American families and small businesses and adding more wasteful Washington spending.

WELNA: For a while yesterday, the deal hit a snag with House Democrats. They were unhappy about funding being reduced from the level in their bill for helping states meet their payrolls and on school building funds being limited to renovations and not new school construction.

In the end, though, Speaker Nancy Pelosi settled for less than what she hoped for.

NANCY PELOSI: We have come to an agreement with the Senate as to how we'll go forward, and I think people are pretty happy about that.

WELNA: Some Democrats, though, question whether the stimulus was big enough to do the job. House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey noted that many will look only at its $789 billion price tag.

DAVID OBEY: And it looks awfully big until you divide it into two-and-a-half years, and then you see that the fiscal thrust represented by this package is, if anything, understated and inadequate to the task.

WELNA: But the cold political reality is that the package Congress has come up with is likely the biggest Democrats could get without losing their three crucial Senate GOP allies. Last night, Senator Majority Leader Reid said with its swift action on the stimulus, Congress has brought things to a turning point.

REID: We cannot say for certain when the crisis will end, but we do know for certain that this is when the recovery must begin, the minute this bill is on the president's desk for signature.

WELNA: That the bill will end up on the president's desk seems no longer in the question. He's likely to have it there by the weekend.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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Negotiators Reach Stimulus Deal

White House and congressional negotiators reached a compromise Wednesday on an economic recovery plan that carries a reduced price tag of under $800 billion, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.

The $789 billion plan pares down some of the tax breaks in the Senate's version of the bill and restores some spending for school repair and construction and state assistance in the House version. The total is lower than the stimulus bills passed separately by the House and Senate.

Reid said more than one-third of the bill is dedicated to tax cuts for the middle class. The Nevada Democrat thanked the three Republican senators who worked to hammer out a compromise — Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who broke with their party to support the plan.

"The differences between the Senate and House versions, we've resolved," said Reid. "The bills were really quite similar, and I'm pleased to announce that we've been able to bridge those differences."

Reid said the bill could come up for a vote in the next few days. Specter stressed that time is of the essence.

"The economists are virtually uniform in their prediction that if we do not act, we face the potential consequence of a catastrophe and a depression the likes of 1929," said Specter.

House leaders were not present at the news conference unveiling the compromise.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Reid's partner in negotiations over more than 24 intense hours, initially withheld her approval in a lingering disagreement over federal funding for school construction. "We had to make sure the investment in education" was in the bill, the California Democrat said.

Shortly before the deal was announced, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "We think enormous progress in a very short time has been made." He added that "members of our budget team were up on Capitol Hill until late last night" working on the plan.

Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, one of the negotiators, said 3.5 million jobs will be created by the plan. He said lawmakers agreed to hold the cost well below the cost of both the House and Senate bills.

"This represents the beginning of turning our economy around and getting us back to where we should be," said Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent.

Obama has said he wanted to sign the bill into law by Presidents Day, which is Feb. 16.

Congressional negotiators have worked on a compromise plan since Tuesday, after the Senate narrowly passed an $838 billion measure with support from only three Republicans. The $820 billion House plan, which was passed last month, had no Republican support.

The president has spent much of this week trying to rally support for the economic recovery package. On Wednesday, he visited a construction site in Virginia to call attention to the jobs that would be created by his stimulus plan.

Obama also said that machinery giant Caterpillar Inc. would rehire some of the 20,000 workers it had laid off if Congress approves the bill. The president plans to visit the company's workers in Peoria, Ill., on Thursday.

On Monday, the president held a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Ind., where the unemployment rate is more than 15 percent as recreational vehicle manufacturing has plummeted. "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 crowd of 1,700.

He also went to the American people in a televised appeal Monday night as he tried to pressure Congress to act quickly on the stimulus plan.

And Tuesday, he told a crowd in Fort Myers, Fla. — where foreclosures and unemployment are in the double digits — that his economic recovery plan would put people back to work immediately.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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