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Senate to vote on dueling economic plans

Senate Democrats said Thursday they would force votes next week on adding rebates for senior citizens and disabled veterans and heating aid for the poor to the House-passed economic stimulus package.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Senate Democrats said Thursday they would force votes next week on adding rebates for senior citizens and disabled veterans and heating aid for the poor to the House-passed economic stimulus package.

The move marked a lapse in the broad bipartisan cooperation that sped the stimulus plan through the House, and set the stage for a contentious fight between Republicans who are balking at adding to the bill and Democrats who believe it should be larger.

"Democrats have spoken on how this package can be improved," said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

He said the measure was still on track for completion by Feb. 15. "We are doing this as fast as we can," he said.

But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the proposed add-ons were slowing down rebate checks for millions of Americans, now expected to be delivered starting in May.

"The stimulus train is grinding to a halt here in the U.S. Senate," McConnell said.

Under Reid's plan for Senate action on the stimulus package, the Senate could vote as early as Monday on a bill that would tack $32 billion onto the House measure with rebates of $500-$1,000 to all but the richest taxpayers, with more for families with children.

Approved by the Finance Committee on Wednesday with just three Republican votes, the package also would expand rebate eligibility to 20 million older Americans on Social Security and to disabled veterans, and it would provide an unemployment extension for those whose benefits have run out.

The Senate measure would pump $193 billion into the economy over the next two years, compared with the $161 billion House measure that would send $600-$1,200 rebates to a narrower group.

Democrats in the Senate don't expect to be able to muster the 60 votes they would need to pass the measure, so they will follow up with efforts to add their favorite items _ including jobless benefits, food stamps and heating aid for the poor and housing relief _ to the House bill, Reid said.

They also plan to hold separate votes on adding heating aid and rebates for seniors and disabled veterans, which would pose a sticky dilemma for Republicans facing re-election.

"It's tough votes for them," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, who heads the Democrats' Senate campaign arm.

Back-up plan
If none of their proposals attracts enough backing to win approval, the Senate will pass the House measure, Reid said.

The bill approved by the Finance Committee would extend unemployment payments for 13 weeks for those whose benefits have run out, with 26 more weeks available in states with the highest unemployment rates. The only state that currently meets the trigger is Michigan.

Labor unions are pressing hard for the extension. The AFL-CIO circulated a letter to senators Thursday urging them to include it in the final stimulus bill.

Democrats said it would be difficult for senators to oppose sending rebate checks to seniors, who also have been lobbying intensively to be included in the stimulus bill.

The Senate measure would deliver flat rebates of $500 for individuals and $1,000 for couples to anyone earning at least $3,000, with income limits of $150,000 for individuals and $300,000 for couples. The rebate would phase out for those making more, disappearing altogether for individuals with income of $160,000 for individuals and $320,000 for couples. The caps would be higher for those with children.

It also goes farther than the House package in efforts to bar illegal immigrants from receiving rebates. Under the Senate measure, recipients and their spouses and children would need valid Social Security numbers to qualify. The House bill omits that requirement, although it expressly disqualifies nonresident aliens.

On Thursday, House leaders indicated they would move to clarify a provision in their version of the bill to stipulate that no rebates could go to illegal immigrants.

"We will take legislative action to clarify and underscore this prohibition so we can expedite the rebates to millions of eligible Americans," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Republican Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, said in a joint statement.

The Senate plan would restore a business tax break dropped during the House negotiations that would permit corporations suffering losses now to reclaim taxes previously paid.

Both packages include roughly $50 billion worth of tax incentives for businesses to invest in new plants and equipment.