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Both Sides Pushing for Changes to Senate's Stimulus Package

By Joseph J. Schatz, CQ Staff

JANUARY 30, 2009 -- Senators are gearing up for a wide-ranging floor debate on an $888 billion economic stimulus bill starting Monday, with Republicans and Democrats alike seeking to make changes to the massive package.

The Senate Finance and Appropriations Committees approved their pieces of the package on Jan. 27. The Finance Committee portion includes $342 billion in tax breaks and about $180 billion in health care and other entitlement spending. The Appropriations Committee measure includes $365.6 billion.

While floor amendments are still taking shape, GOP proposals will focus on additional tax cuts, reducing "non-stimulative" spending, and dealing with the housing crisis, according to one Senate Republican aide.

Democratic leaders have made clear they will oppose sweeping changes to their package (S 1), but they also signaled a willingness to accept modest, targeted alterations.

Many lawmakers argue that the housing market collapse is at the root of the economic crisis and should be better addressed in the stimulus package. One possible Republican amendment, the aide said, is a proposal that would allow homeowners with good credit to refinance their homes at interest rates of 4.5 percent or below.

Some Democrats are also pushing modifications. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., wants to expand the first-time homebuyer tax credit enacted last summer beyond first-time buyers. Conrad offered and withdrew such an amendment in the Finance Committee.

Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., are pushing Democratic leaders to include language in the bill that would require businesses receiving stimulus money to use E-Verify, an electronic government citizenship verification program, to ensure that employees are not illegal immigrants.

"If passed, [the stimulus bill] will be paid for by the American taxpayers and we believe that Congress should do all it can to ensure that American taxpayers are the intended beneficiaries of its efforts," Nelson and Sessions said in a letter to Senate leaders. "The inclusion of such a provision will be a key factor as we evaluate the merits of the stimulus package and gauge our support."

Both President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress cited a Commerce Department announcement Friday morning that gross domestic product (GDP) shrank by 3.8 percent in the last quarter of 2008 to press for quick floor action. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the news "underscores the urgency with which we need a plan that not only strengthens our economy now, but will invest in our nation over the long term."

The House passed its version of the stimulus legislation (HR 1) by 244–188 on Jan. 27. Not a single Republican voted for it.

Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have vowed to get a final bill to Obama's desk by Presidents Day in mid-February.

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