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Economic stimulus plan in doubt

House passes measure, but prospects dim in Senate

By Ian Christopher McCaleb
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Republican-controlled House of Representatives early Thursday approved a new White House-backed version of an economic stimulus bill, but the measure's prospects are dim in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The House passed the bill 224-193, largely along party lines, after hours of sometimes-acrimonious debate.

The legislation would provide business and individual tax cuts, extend unemployment insurance, and provide immediate and refundable tax credits for the unemployed to purchase health insurance.

House and Senate Democratic leaders continue to raise objections to such tax credits, saying they would do little to help the newly unemployed pay for their health care needs.

U.S. President George W. Bush is publicly pushing the new bill, putting pressure on Senate Democrats. CNN's Kate Snow reports (December 20)

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Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota warned that House passage would not make him more inclined to bring it up for a vote. The Senate is scheduled to adjourn Friday for the Christmas break.

"I don't want to get into a protracted debate about economic stimulus simply because the bill is going nowhere," Daschle said of the House legislation.

President Bush traveled to Capitol Hill on Wednesday morning to press his point that Congress should not leave for the year without sending him a stimulus bill he can sign.

In an unusual move, his first of several stops was with the House Democratic Caucus, where economic stimulus was not mentioned.

During his brief appearance he thanked members for their cooperation during his first year as president, several of those present said.

To buttress the administration's view that it was taking a bipartisan approach, Bush also met with three moderate Senate Democrats -- John Breaux of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Zell Miller of Georgia -- as television cameras and photographers looked on.

Bush told reporters he was optimistic the House bill had enough votes to pass the Senate.

"This bill can pass both bodies," he said. "This bill will pass the House. It's got enough votes to pass the Senate. I look forward to working with both bodies, in any way I can, to convince those who are reluctant to get a bill done that this makes sense for the American people, so we can leave for Christmas knowing full well that we have done the people's business."

But Daschle held firm, telling reporters in a hastily convened news conference afterward that the bill does not have enough votes in the upper chamber, and he had little intention of bringing it to the floor.

Despite support for the bill from Breaux, Miller and Nelson, Senate Republicans still do not have enough votes to overcome parliamentary roadblocks in the Senate, because in such cases 60 votes are needed.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer acknowledged in his afternoon briefing that Bush was speaking of a simple majority vote in the Senate, should the bill be brought up for a vote.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois called the House bill a "bipartisan" and "bicameral" agreement, but when asked if Daschle would find it acceptable, said, "I didn't say that."

Appearing with Daschle, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, blasted the House leadership's move to bring up the bill, though he conceded the GOP had enough votes lined up to get it passed there.

"There has been an attempt by some to lay this all at Tom Daschle's feet," said Gephardt. "I don't know of anyone who has worked harder or more reasonably or more effectively. ... We still stand ready to try to get something done."

Health care tax credits

While some involved with the negotiations indicated Wednesday that many hurdles had been cleared, health insurance for the unemployed remained the biggest obstacle -- a reality Hastert acknowledged after a late-morning meeting with Daschle.

Emerging from the talks, Hastert briefly told reporters that no progress had been made and the House would move forward with its bill Wednesday afternoon.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, accused the Republicans of advancing the health care tax credits to suit a wider, more far-flung agenda than immediate economic stimulus.

Republicans have rejected Democratic calls for direct health insurance aid for the unemployed, saying the Democrats would extend the same benefits to people who left their jobs voluntarily or who took early retirement.

Fleischer said the Democratic health insurance plan was flawed because it would require states to rewrite their Medicaid guidelines.

"The Democratic formula doesn't help people who worked for companies that went bankrupt, unless it is administered through Medicaid," Fleischer said.

"Many states ... would object, because they don't have the resources, and they would have to pass laws in their own legislatures to expand Medicaid.

"The president's proposal allows benefits to be distributed through the COBRA system through corporations that are not defunct," Fleischer said.

"It allows individuals to get credit. And it allows for COBRA coverage. It allows the unemployed the flexibility they need to get health insurance."


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