US stimulus bill of $787 billion approved

Scale of the legislation so huge and provisions so diverse that its effects may be felt in almost every corner of American society.

stimulus 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
stimulus 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
With the House of Representatives and Senate giving final approval to the massive stimulus bill Friday, and President Barack Obama prepared to sign it early next week, the question now is this: Just how soon can Americans begin to feel its benefits, and when will they know whether it's working? The scale of the legislation is so huge and its provisions so diverse that its effects could be felt in almost every corner of American society. Like a time-release capsule, the $787 billion plan will move into the nation's economic bloodstream in stages. A majority of Americans should see more money in their pockets quickly, a result of tax cuts designed to reduce withholding and fatten take-home pay. Investments in science, basic research and the so-called "green economy" may not yield sizable benefits for years, if not decades. The Congressional Budget Office said the legislation would deliver its largest benefits to the nation's total gross domestic product by the end of this year, with the effect dropping some in 2010 and disappearing altogether by 2013. The bill, the CBO said, would have its greatest impact in terms of adding jobs next year, when some 3.6 million jobs could be created. But, the report added, the package could have a positive effect on employment for the next five years, perhaps leading to the creation of as many as 11.6 million jobs during that span. House Republicans contend that the bill will only produce 3.46 million jobs, "500,000 fewer than President Obama promised," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for John Boehner, R-Ohio, the House minority leader. No Republicans voted for the bill in the House on Friday. The final vote was 246 to 183, with 7 Democrats breaking ranks to vote with the GOP. In the Senate, the vote was 60 to 38, with three Republicans - Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania - voting for the package, just enough to assure that the GOP could not block the bill with a filibuster. Republicans heaped particular criticism on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "It's a one-party bill," said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republican whip, after the bill passed in the House. "We weren't allowed to write one word of this bill." During debate in the Senate floor, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., sounded the line many Democrats - including Obama - used to answer their critics. "What would they have us do?" he said. "They would have us do nothing." The bill outlays billions for infrastructure repair, school renovations, aid for cash-strapped states, and aid for the unemployed in the form of health care subsidies and extensions of unemployment benefits. It also features a bevy of tax cuts designed to leave more money in the hands of businesses and individuals. Here is what people can expect to see in the first wave of effects: Workers who make less than $75,000 a year (or married couples that make $150,000 or less), will receive a $400 tax credit in 2009 and 2010. Those who make more will receive reduced amounts. But instead of mailing out checks, as the Bush administration did with its stimulus plan last year, the government will withhold a little less -- leaving average workers with perhaps $8 extra per week. Those sums were ridiculed by Republicans and others, who said that the bill's benefits for taxpayers are wildly inflated. Still, "that cash has to go somewhere," said Clint Stretch, managing principal for tax policy in Washington with the consulting firm Deloitte. He said it was a "pretty direct" form of stimulus and "nobody has to do anything to get it." Those out of work will see unemployment checks immediately increase by $25, up from the average benefit of $200 a week. And eligibility for benefits would last 46 weeks, up from 26 weeks. - Health insurance subsidies for unemployed workers could also have a direct impact, but even with the federal help many may find it hard to afford continued coverage. Jobless workers must arrange with their employers to continue the coverage and must pay the premiums themselves - a hefty outlay even with the government now picking up 65 percent of the cost for nine months for individuals earning up to $125,000 a year ($250,000 for couples). First-time home-buyers can also reap immediate benefits. In lieu of government cash, they can claim an $8,000 tax credit if they buy a home before the end of year. And many parents of college students will be able to deduct more of the cost of their tuition on next year's tax return (as long as they are paying it, of course). Following the direct benefits are funds for projects that can create or preserve jobs. The federal government will deliver $54 billion in aid to cash-strapped states, with some of the money available to prop up state budgets, help maintain services and keep employees on the job. A large chunk of funds will be available for upgrading school buildings. Other money could help keep teachers and day-care workers on the payroll. That alone could save or create hundreds of thousands of jobs nationwide, Democrats say. At the same time, counties, cities, and municipalities that receive a chunk of stimulus money are expected to green-light so-called "shovel-ready" projects, using workers and equipment that otherwise might go unused. The US Conference of Mayors has projected that such projects could yield 1.6 million jobs by the end of next year. A provision to spend $10 billion on weatherization and other energy efficiency upgrades for homes and federal buildings is aimed at benefiting the economy in the mid-term. Longer term, the legislation calls for $20 billion to upgrade the nation's electric grid and $8 billion for high-speed rail projects. There are also large increases in research and development, including $1 billion for NASA and $3 billion for the National Science Foundation.