WASHINGTON, DC, February 10, 2009 (ENS) - The U.S. Senate today approved an $838 billion economic stimulus bill, including billions of dollars in spending and tax credits for renewable energy, environmental restoration, national parks, cleaner cars and energy efficiency programs. Lawmakers from the House and the Senate must now reconcile major differences in their competing stimulus bills, with the hope of getting the final package to the White House by week's end.
"We must move swiftly with our colleagues in the House to complete work on the legislation and send it to the president's desk as soon as possible," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. "The time for debate on this legislation was productive but it is over ... we must now answer the urgent call of the American people for action."
The Senate approved the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act by a vote of 61-37, with three Republicans joining 58 Democrats and Independents. The three Republicans who voted for the bill - Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania - were responsible for crafting a compromise that scaled back the original Senate stimulus package.
The U.S. Capitol building where the final stimulus package will be hammered out in conference committee over the next few days. (Photo by Leon Reed)
"We got rid of funding for such projects as $870 million for pandemic flu preparedness - that is something that may be needed but doesn't belong in a stimulus package," Collins said. "We made a number of cuts like that, difficult cuts but important, so that we could keep to the purpose of this package."
But the majority of Senate Republicans railed against the bill, suggesting it will do little to help the economy.
Arizona Republican John McCain called the Senate stimulus package an "act of generational theft," describing the measure as "neither bipartisan nor a compromise."
The bill is "a spending spree that masquerades as a stimulus," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican. "We are taking an enormous risk with other peoples' money … I won't take that risk."
But proponents echoed President Barack Obama's plea for action and noted that a long list of competing interests have voiced support for the bill, including environmentalists, labor advocates, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and other industry groups.
"Critics have gone to great lengths to find fault," said Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat who helped author the Senate compromise. "That's the old Washington way that leads straight down the path to partisan bickering, deadlock and a dead end. Many have said the bill spends too much, others have said it cuts too much spending. That is a sign that it's just about right."
President Barack Obama addresses a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Indiana. February 9, 2009 (Photo by OneGuyu2)
Speaking Monday at a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Indiana, a place that has lost jobs faster than anywhere else in America, President Obama had urged lawmakers to move on the stimulus bill.
"It's not perfect, but it is the right size, it is the right scope, broadly speaking it has the right priorities to create jobs that will jump-start our economy and transform this economy for the 21st century," Obama said.
Even the most ardent supporters acknowledge that there is much work to be done. The Senate bill may only be about $20 billion more than the version passed last month by the House, but there are stark differences between the two measures.
The Senate package is more heavily tilted toward tax cuts and contains some $40 billion less in aid to state governments than the House version.
The Senate also trimmed some $19 billion in school construction and some $6 billion in health care spending from the House bill.
Reconciling those differences will be difficult. House Democrat leaders have criticized the Senate cuts, but reinstating some of their favored spending could threaten support in the Senate.
At least 60 votes are needed in the Senate to pass the final measure and all three Republicans who voted for the bill have warned that their support is not guaranteed.
Specter said he wants to see the "Senate compromise bill come back virtually intact."
Both bills have broad agreement on boosting funds for renewable energy and energy efficiency programs - two areas strongly supported by the White House.
The House and Senate each provided major increases in spending and tax credits for energy efficiency and renewable energy, setting aside $13 billion to extend tax credits for the production of wind, solar and other renewable energy sources as well as $11 billion to fund modernization of the electricity grid - an effort seen as key to expanding use of renewable energy.
America's electricity transmission grid would be modernized if the stimulus package is enacted into law. (Photo by Craig Bennett)
The House and Senate versions also each have $4.3 billion in tax credits for homeowners to make their homes more energy efficient, along with $2.5 billion in funding for renewable energy and development at the U.S. Energy Department.
But lawmakers must also negotiate differences on funding and tax breaks for a slew of environmental concerns - most of which receive more support in the House bill compared to the Senate version.
While the House provided $6.9 billion for state and local energy grants, the Senate cut that figure to $4.7 billion and cut the $8 billion in loan guarantees for renewable energy approved by the House to $7 billion.
Senators did, however, approve a major increase for funding of environmental cleanup of military sites, boosting the House figure of $500 million to $5.5 billion.
The Senate also inserted $2 billion to restart FutureGen - a controversial clean coal and carbon sequestration demonstration project the U.S. Energy Department decided to abandon last year. No funding for the project is included in the House bill.
The Senate bill affords some $2 billion in tax credits for manufacturers of equipment for advanced energy projects, a provision absent from the House version, but does not include $1 billion put in by the House to help low-income families pay utility bills.
In addition, the Senate reduced funding for "green" federal buildings from $6 billion to $4.5 billion and cut support for a federal program that provides home weatherization services.
Both the green building effort and the weatherization program, which helps low-income families make energy efficient changes to their homes, have been promoted by President Obama as a critical part of the stimulus plan.
"When people suggest that what a waste of money to make federal buildings more energy efficient - why would that be a waste of money?" the president said Monday night at a press conference. "We're creating jobs immediately by retrofitting these buildings or weatherizing two million Americans' homes."
The Senate slashed the House allocation for the weatherization program from $6.2 billion to $2.9 billion. It also reduced the amount set aside for loans and grants for wastewater and drinking water infrastructure from $8.4 billion to $6.4 billion.
A plan to fund the federal government's purchase of fuel-efficient cars was curbed by the Senate, which cut the House figure of $600 million to $300 million.
Cleanup efforts at Superfund toxic waste sites would receive $600 million under the Senate bill, down from $800 million in the House legislation.
Contaminated mine drainage from the Tar Creek Superfund site near the Oklahoma/Kansas border (Photo courtesy Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College)
The Senate reduced funding for National Science Foundation to $1.2 billion, compared to $3 billion set aside by the House, and also cut operations and research funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from $400 million to $227 million.
Projects aimed at improving national parks and other public lands also found less support in the Senate. Funding for maintenance and construction projects in the national parks was cut from $1.7 billion to about $589 million by the Senate, which reduced money for similar projects in national wildlife refuges from $300 million to $110 million.
The General Accountability Office has estimated that the National Park System has a maintenance backlog of nearly $9 billion.
Both bills set aside $650 million for improvements and maintenance on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service, but the Senate slashed the House total of $850 million for wildland fire management to $485 million.
Some environmentalists raised concerns about of a provision added by the Senate to give $1 billion to the National Nuclear Security Administration. The agency manages the inventory and control of the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile.
"How does this make sense?" said Nick Roth, program director for the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability. "President Obama has pledged to send resources to real nuclear dangers - halt the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue states, ratify a treaty to stop nuclear testing. Instead, we're might send a billion dollars of stimulus money toward the nuclear weapons complex?"
But most environmental groups reacted positively to the passage of the stimulus bill, while urging lawmakers to largely favor the House bill over the Senate's version.
Adam Kolton, the National Wildlife Federation's senior director of congressional and federal affairs, said, "We hope Congressional negotiators maintain the House bill's strong investments in education, clean energy and America's natural resources - all proven ways to stimulate shovel-ready projects and rapidly create jobs."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.