The fate of $600 to $1,200 rebate checks for more than 100-million Americans is in limbo after Senate Republicans blocked a bid by Democrats to add $44-billion in help for the elderly, disabled veterans, the unemployed and businesses to the House-passed economic aid package.
GOP senators banded together Wednesday to thwart the $205-billion plan, leaving Democrats with a difficult choice either to quickly accept a House bill they have said is inadequate or risk being blamed for delaying a measure designed as a swift shot in the arm for the lagging economy.
The tally was 58-41 to end debate on the Senate measure, just short of the 60 votes Democrats would have needed to scale procedural hurdles and move to a final vote. GOP leaders and President Bush oppose the costly add-ons.
Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson voted in favor of increasing the size of the stimulus bill, while Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez voted against it. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois flew to Washington to vote for the measure. GOP front-runner John McCain of Arizona did not vote.
The White House, which has carefully avoided issuing threats about the package despite Bush's opposition to the add-ons, urged the Senate to move fast to approve a stimulus plan.
Even after their effort fell short, Democrats seemed determined to keep the pressure on Republicans to accept the measure, threatening to hold more votes on it in the coming days.
Republicans said they were ready to accept rebates for seniors and disabled veterans and accused Democrats of delaying the stimulus plan for political gain and loading it down with special-interest extras.
GOP leaders objected to add-ons such as a $14.5-billion unemployment extension for those whose benefits have run out, $1-billion in heating aid for the poor, and tax breaks for renewable energy producers and coal companies.
The measure builds upon a $161-billion House-passed bill providing $600 to $1,200 checks to most taxpayers and tax breaks to businesses investing in new plants and equipment.
The Senate version would provide checks of $500 to $1,000 to a broader group that includes 20-million elderly people, 250,000 disabled veterans and taxpayers making up to $150,000 for singles - or $300,000 for couples.
It would extend unemployment benefits for an additional 13 weeks for those whose benefits have run out, with 13 more weeks available in states with the highest jobless rates. The bill also includes $10-billion in tax-free mortgage revenue bonds to help homeowners refinance subprime loans.
The dispute has slowed down the stimulus measure, but there's no indication it will delay rebate checks, which are expected to begin arriving in May.
Do Not Call bills go to Bush
Congress on Wednesday sent to President Bush two bills to make permanent a program to protect consumers from unwanted phone calls from salesmen and other telemarketers. Its hallmark is the national Do Not Call Registry.
The House passed by voice vote and sent to President Bush a bill to make permanent the authority of the Federal Trade Commission to collect fees from telemarketers to run the program. The Senate later approved by a voice vote and sent to the White House a bill to make the list permanent, overturning an FTC rule that people re-register every five years.
Some 150-million people have listed their phones on the Do Not Call Registry, initiated in 2003. Violations subject telemarketers to civil penalties up to $11,000 per violation. Organizations engaged in charitable, political and survey work are exempt.
To sign up, go online to www.donotcall.gov or call toll-free at 1-888-382-1222 from the phone number you want to register.