Washington - In the first major test of President Barack Obama's ability to push his ambitious agenda through Congress, the House approved yesterday the largest attempt since World War II to use the federal budget to redirect the course of the nation's economy.
Obama had worked hard for bipartisan support for the $819 billion stimulus package, beginning to negotiate possible compromises with Republicans even before entering the White House. But the measure passed the House on a strict party-line vote, 244 to 188.
The real test, however, is whether the bill helps to halt what has threatened to become an economic death spiral. The answer to that question will come not in Washington but in cities, neighborhoods and rural areas across the country as the bill's impact becomes clear among workers, employers, and state and local governments.
Despite the partisan outcome, the president praised the House action and urged quick action in the Senate, saying, "What we can't do is drag our feet or allow the same partisan differences to get in our way. We must move swiftly and boldly to put Americans back to work, and that is exactly what this plan begins to do."
With Obama and Democratic leaders intent on enacting the measure by mid-February, the Senate is expected to vote next week on its version of the bill - broadly similar to the House bill but more expensive. Democratic leaders have pledged to have a final bill for the White House before the Presidents Day recess, or to keep members in session until they act.
Though solidly unified on the final vote, even some Democrats worried that the bill - drafted quickly by House Democrats working closely with Obama's aides and approved just eight days after his inauguration - might not achieve its enormous goals.
And some - especially fiscal conservatives and freshmen - squirmed at having to approve so much deficit spending to attack a problem they blame on former President George W. Bush and the GOP.
What carried the day for these Democrats was heavy political pressure to take some bold action to alleviate the anxiety and misfortune their constituents face.
For their part, Republicans showed remarkable unanimity. On major economic issues, typically a few moderate Republicans stray from the party line. This time, they seemed to be concerned chiefly with re-establishing their bona fides as fiscal conservatives, deriding excessive government spending while returning to their pro-tax-cut credo.
"Most House Republicans will oppose this bill tonight for one reason: It won't work," said Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican. Republicans unsuccessfully proposed an alternative that focused only on cutting taxes.
The only Marylander to break party ranks, Kratovil said he opposed the measure because the impact of the spending package had been "watered down" by expensive programs that were unlikely to give the economy a short-term lift.
But Kratovil expressed hope, in a statement, that "a better bill" would emerge from House negotiations with the Senate.
His "no" vote may well have reflected public opinion in his district, which includes Republican areas of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties, as well as the entire Eastern Shore. National polls show that Democrats and independents support the stimulus package but Republican voters strongly oppose it.
The bill contains an almost bewildering array of provisions, many of them funded at all but unprecedented levels.
For the millions of Americans who are losing their jobs and feeling the impact of the economic crisis most directly, the bill would provide at least $86 billion for expansion of the social safety net - including deep subsidies for private health insurance, expanded access to Medicaid and more extensive jobless benefits.
About $275 billion in tax cuts for businesses and individuals, including credits of up to $500 for single workers and $1,000 for couples, are included in the bill. And it would prime the economic pump with $544 billion in direct spending, including aid to fiscally beleaguered states, subsidies for education and energy innovation, and funding for highway construction and other job-creating infrastructure projects.
Congress is moving with unusual dispatch at a time when the economy is shedding jobs at an astonishing pace. About 2.6 million jobs were lost in 2008, and 2 million more are expected to be lost in the next six months.
"The workers who are returning home to tell their husbands and wives and children that they no longer have a job, and all those who live in fear that their job will be next on the cutting blocks, they need help now," Obama said yesterday after meeting with corporate executives at the White House.
"They are looking to Washington for action, bold and swift."
The bill aims to shore up the economy both in the short and long term by putting more money into the hands of consumers through various tax credits. It would try to spur job creation with tax breaks for businesses and the billions for infrastructure and construction projects.
The impact of those provisions will not be felt for some time - not until taxpayers and businesses calculate their tax bills or until public works projects get up and running.
Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon said yesterday that she believes work could start within six months on some of the $300 million worth of school construction, road resurfacing and wastewater projects her administration has identified as "shovel ready."
The projects would "definitely" create new jobs in Baltimore, Dixon said.
The measure includes benefits to help jobless workers almost immediately, such as little-noticed provisions to greatly expand access to health care for the unemployed, who usually lose their insurance coverage when they are laid off. Republican critics viewed those provisions as a Trojan horse for Democrats' hopes of expanding the federal role in health care.
"Things that should be debated in the context of health care reform are being rushed through in this stimulus bill," said Rep. Michael C. Burgess, a Texas Republican and obstetrician.
Under current law, the government allows people to keep their former employers' health insurance for 18 months - but only if they pay the full premium. That is prohibitively expensive for many, so only about 26 percent of people eligible for that option take advantage of it.
To make it more affordable, the bill would provide a subsidy of 65 percent of the premium costs, at a cost of $40 billion.
To help those who don't qualify, the House bill would also allow anyone receiving an unemployment check to qualify for Medicaid, the federal-state program for low-income people. The federal government would cover the full cost of that expansion to the unemployed, which would be available without regard to their income.
Those health care provisions will apply to people who lost their jobs after Sept. 1, 2008.
Other provisions of the bill would put more cash into the hands of the jobless and the needy. A $25-a-week increase in unemployment benefits was included, up from the average weekly benefit of $200. And up to $7 billion would be provided to encourage states to extend their unemployment coverage of low-wage, part-time and other workers who do not now qualify.
Democrats estimated that that could provide up to 650,000 more workers with benefits.
The bill would also provide an extra month's check - about $450 - to 7.5 million poor and elderly recipients of Supplemental Security Income, as well as aid to states for emergency welfare spending.
Baltimore Sun reporters Paul West and Annie Linskey contributed to this article.
HOW THE MARYLAND DELEGATION VOTED
* C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Democrat
* John P. Sarbanes, Democrat
* Donna Edwards, Democrat
* Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat
* Elijah Cummings, Democrat
* Chris Van Hollen, Democrat
* Frank Kratovil, Democrat
* Roscoe Bartlett, Republican
The Senate takes up a different version of the economic stimulus package, with a vote expected next week. The competing plans will be reconciled in a conference committee, where more changes could be made. Lawmakers hope to adopt a final version by the middle of next month.