WASHINGTON — In a swift victory for President Barack Obama, the Democratic-controlled House approved a historically huge $819 billion stimulus bill Wednesday night, filled with new spending and tax cuts at the core of the young administration’s revival plan for the desperately ailing economy.
The vote was 244-188.
“We don’t have a moment to spare,” Obama declared at the White House as congressional allies hastened to do his bidding in the face of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
The vote sent the bill to the Senate, where debate is expected to begin as early as this week on a companion measure already taking shape. Democratic leaders have pledged to have legislation ready for Obama’s signature by mid-February.
A mere eight days after Inauguration Day, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday’s events heralded a new era. “The ship of state is difficult to turn,” said the California Democrat. “But that is what we must do. That is what President Obama called us to do in his inaugural address.”
With unemployment at its highest level in a quarter-century, the banking industry wobbling despite the infusion of staggering sums of bailout money and states struggling with budget crises, Democrats said the legislation was desperately needed.
“Another week that we delay is another 100,000 or more people unemployed. I don’t think we want that on our consciences,” said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and one of the leading architects of the legislation.
Republicans said the bill was short on tax cuts and contained too much spending, much of it wasteful and unlikely to help laid-off Americans.
The party’s leader, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, said the measure “won’t create many jobs, but it will create plenty of programs and projects through slow-moving government spending.” A GOP alternative, comprised almost entirely of tax cuts, was defeated, 266-170, moments before the final vote.
On the final vote, the legislation drew overwhelming support among Democrats while all but a few Republicans opposed it.
The White House-backed legislation includes an estimated $544 billion in federal spending and $275 billion in tax cuts for individuals and businesses.
Included is money for traditional job-creating programs such as highway construction and mass transit projects. But the measure tickets far more for unemployment benefits, health care and food stamp increases designed to aid victims of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Tens of billions of additional dollars would go to the states, which confront the prospect of deep budget cuts of their own. That money marks an attempt to ease the recession’s impact on schools and law enforcement. With funding for housing weatherization and other provisions, the bill also makes a down payment on Obama’s campaign promise of creating jobs that can reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.
The centerpiece tax cut calls for a $500 break for single workers and $1,000 for couples, including those who don’t earn enough to owe federal income taxes.
The House vote marked merely the first of several major milestones for the legislation, which Democratic leaders have pledged to deliver to the White House for Obama’s signature by mid-February.
Already a more bipartisan — and costlier — measure is taking shape in the Senate, and Obama personally pledged to House and Senate Republicans in closed-door meetings Tuesday that he is ready to accept modifications as the legislation advances.
Rahm Emanuel, a former Illinois congressman who is Obama’s chief of staff, invited nearly a dozen House Republicans to the White House late Tuesday for what one participant said was a soft sales job.
This lawmaker quoted Emanuel as telling the group that polling shows roughly 80 percent support for the legislation, and that Republicans oppose it at their political peril. The lawmaker spoke on condition of anonymity, saying there was no agreement to speak publicly about the session.
In fact, though, many Republicans in the House are virtually immune from Democratic challenges because of the makeup of their districts, and have more to fear from GOP primary challenges in 2010. As a result, they have relatively little political incentive to break with conservative orthodoxy and support hundreds of billions in new federal spending.
Also, some Republican lawmakers have said in recent days they know they will have a second chance to support a bill when the final House-Senate compromise emerges in a few weeks.
That gave an air of predictability to the proceedings in the House, as Democrats defended the legislation as an appropriate response to the specter of double-digit unemployment in the near future.
Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, sought to strip out all the spending from the legislation before final passage, arguing that the entire cost of the bill would merely add to soaring federal deficits. “Where are we going to get the money,” he asked, but his attempt failed overwhelmingly, 302-134.
Obey had a ready retort. “They don’t look like Herbert Hoover, I guess, but there are an awful lot of people in this chamber who think like Herbert Hoover,” he said, referring to the president whose term is forever linked in history with the Great Depression.
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