House OKs rebates; Senate may modify

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Less than a week after quickly crafting a rare bipartisan compromise, the House yesterday overwhelmingly passed a $150 billion economic stimulus package to send checks to millions of low- and middle-income Americans.

But what shape the final legislation will take remains unclear as the Senate begins debate on its own plan amid more signs of economic instability.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, will convene a meeting today to consider his version, which differs substantially from the House bill. Other senators are pushing a range of proposals that would augment the carefully crafted deal worked out last week by House leaders and the Bush administration.

The House measure - a mix of tax rebates, business incentives and relief for strapped mortgage holders - passed 385 to 35. But the lopsided vote did nothing to deter the Senate from seeking to put its own imprint on the politically popular legislation.

"What the House has done is important and good," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said yesterday, noting that there are 51 members of the Democratic caucus "without exception who believe this package can be made better."

The majority leader said he has received 15 letters from lawmakers proposing additions, including more spending on public works and more mortgage assistance.

The proliferating suggestions, which could jeopardize chances of passing a stimulus package by mid-February, have set off alarm bells in the White House and the House chamber.

On Monday, President Bush warned senators in his State of the Union speech not to "load up the bill" with additional pay-outs.

Yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who worked with Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. to put together the bill, asked senators not to tie up the legislation. "I would hope that the timely aspect of this is recognized by our colleagues in the Senate," she said.

After the House version passed yesterday, Pelosi and Boehner stood together at a Capitol news conference to urge swift action.

The relatively simple House measure relies primarily on tax rebates for most households and a package of temporary tax breaks to encourage businesses to expand and create more jobs this year. Single filers would get a $600 rebate that would begin phasing out for taxpayers earning more than $75,000. The phase-out for married couples - who would get $1,200 rebates or more if they have children - would start at $150,000.

The House bill also includes a large one-year increase in the size of mortgages that can be backed by the government, making it easier for homeowners to refinance into more affordable mortgages.

Maryland's eight House members - Democrats Elijah E. Cummings, Steny H. Hoyer, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes, Chris Van Hollen and Albert R. Wynn, and Republicans Roscoe G. Bartlett and Wayne T. Gilchrest - voted for the plan.

"This stimulus will put money in the hands of hard-working Americans to give them the help they need and, at the same time, stimulate the economy," Hoyer, the House majority leader, said before the vote.

Momentum for the stimulus package has built amid growing fears of a recession.

Yesterday, the Commerce Department reported that durable goods orders had jumped by 5.2 percent in December, the strongest showing in five months, suggesting that not all segments of the economy have been infected by the housing market's collapse. But indexes reporting consumer confidence and homes prices both dropped. Also, the International Monetary Fund predicted yesterday that global economic growth would slow from 4.9 percent to 4.1 percent in the coming months.

Citing the grim economic landscape, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said yesterday a majority of GOP senators would support the bill passed by the House. "The need for speed, the importance of bipartisanship in reassuring the markets and the American people are pretty persuasive arguments to my members," he said.

Many Democratic senators see the bill as inadequate.

Baucus has proposed the most comprehensive alternative to the House bill. He would make smaller rebates available to millions more taxpayers, including seniors living on Social Security, who are not covered by the House bill. Most Americans would receive a $500 check under his plan.

Noam N. Levey and Richard Simon write for the Los Angeles Times. Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.

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