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Congress passes stimulus bill in partisan voting

Congress pushed the $787 billion economic stimulus bill across the finish line late Friday, providing President Obama with a huge but partisan victory and giving the struggling American economy an unprecedented cash infusion.

After several days of haggling that produced a House-Senate compromise, the House approved the measure by a 246-183 margin. While all of Western New York's Democratic lawmakers backed the bill, it received no Republican votes in the House. Seven Democrats joined all 176 Republicans in opposition.

Meanwhile, the Senate approved the measure 60-38 with three GOP moderates providing crucial support. The Senate had delayed action so that Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, could return to the Capitol from his mother's funeral. Brown cast the deciding vote that saved the bill from death by Republican filibuster. The president could sign the bill as early as next week.

The support of three Republican senators -- Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- proved to be crucial to its passage.

"Facing one of the worst economic downturns in our nation's history, inaction was not an option," said Snowe, who, with Collins, Specter and moderate Democrats, forced Democratic leaders to cut the bill's spending levels. "Economists across the ideological spectrum have agreed on one truism -- that fiscal stimulus is necessary to provide the positive jolt our economy urgently requires."

The measure combines billions in spending on highways and other infrastructure with billions in aid to the cash-strapped states to cover their education and Medicaid expenses. It also extends unemployment benefits and increases funding for food stamps and other programs for the disadvantaged.

About 35 percent of the bill is devoted to tax cuts, including a temporary fix that will prevent the Alternative Minimum Tax from hitting the middle class and an income tax cut that will benefit 95 percent of taxpayers.

Obama has said the measure will save or create 3.5 million jobs. And that's why Western New York's lawmakers lined up solidly behind the measure.

"My number one priority for the economic recovery bill is to put Western New York back to work," said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport. "As this federal funding is distributed to the states, I will fight tooth and nail to support local projects that will stimulate our local economy and create stable, good-paying jobs here at home."

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, agreed. "Western New York's economy is struggling and local residents and businesses are suffering," he said. "This drastic action to provide swift and sweeping recovery measures is necessary for this region and our nation's short and long-term viability."

Republicans, however, were sharply critical of the measure.

Rep. Chris Lee, R-Clarence, returned to his district to deal with the aftermath of the plane crash that claimed 50 lives in his district. But he entered a statement into the Congressional Record saying that he would have voted against the measure if he could have.

"From the outset of this debate, I have expressed the need for a timely, fiscally responsible recovery plan that provides the economy with the jump-start it needs to create jobs," Lee said in the statement. "This Washington spending bill simply fails to meet this common-sense standard of economic growth."

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, said the bill would fail to boost the economy because "you cannot borrow and spend your way to prosperity." Democrats were aiming to "stimulate big government" rather than the private sector, he said.

Republicans complain that the bill is heavy on government spending while giving tax breaks short shrift.

"I think everyone in this chamber on both sides of the aisle understands we need to act," said House Minority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican. "But a bill that's supposed to be about jobs, jobs, jobs has turned into a bill that's all about spending, spending and spending."

But Democrats insisted that it's smart spending that will give the economy a much-needed jolt both in the short term and in the long term.

In the short term, the bill will provide New York and its counties with a $12.6 billion boost over two years by increasing the federal share of Medicaid costs. "What that does is free up money on the local level for other things," said Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who noted that a separate huge increase in federal funding for education should help most if not all state school districts from resorting to tax hikes or layoffs.

"This is the first step," Gillibrand added. "I think it's an important first step. I really like the long-term investment -- the health care, the infrastructure, the high-speed rail" that's included in the bill.

Another stimulus package might be in the offing in nine months or a year, said Gillibrand, who hopes that package will provide far more funding to expand high-speed rail across the state.

While the 1,071-page stimulus bill closely tracks Obama's original proposal, it fell far short of his goal of bringing both parties together to support a plan to revive the nation's economy.

Nevertheless, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was accentuating the positive.

"Barack Obama, in just a few short weeks as president, has passed one of the biggest packages for economic recovery in our nation's history," she said.

News wire services contributed to this report.

-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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