WASHINGTON-President Obama's $787 billion stimulus bill passed in the House of Representatives Friday afternoon by a 246-183 vote, about a half a day after the final bill was released to lawmakers. The Senate then passed the bill with just enough votes late Friday night 60-38, with three Republicans voting "yes."
The Senate vote was held open for over five hours-what some are reporting to be the longest vote in the chamber's history. The delay enabled Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who was attending his mother's funeral in Ohio, to fly back to Washington to cast his critical "yes" vote.
In the House, all Republicans voted "no," but several conservative Democrats who initially opposed the bill flipped their votes.
The bill includes Democrat-backed programs, such as climate change research and national rail improvements, but also provided concessions to Republicans like tax cuts. While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was disappointed about the removal of billions for school construction programs, the bill's swift passage was a victory for the Democratic leadership, with the expectation that the bill will arrive on the president's desk this weekend after it passes the Senate later on Friday.
But the dissension of seven Democrats to the bill was a victory for Republicans who have been waging a fierce communications battle on the bill, with GOP staff sending out email blasts on line items in the legislation they consider pork and members speaking vehemently to the press on the bill many call a "boondoggle." Two of the top Republican leaders have been making regular tours of cable news networks to protest the stimulus.
Minority Leader John Boehner has said privately that Republicans in the House, being shut out of negotiations on the stimulus, have to focus on disseminating their message. When no Republicans voted for the first version of the bill, the message came across loud and clear, Boehner said, not just to the majority but to people around the country: The party is back.
"[Pelosi] has used her gavel to shut down the rules," said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. "It's the press we have to rely on."
"We did everything right that we could," said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga. "The only thing that's going to hold the president accountable is the press."
Six of the seven Democrats who voted "no" were conservative Blue Dogs: Bobby Bright, Ala.; Parker Griffith, Ala.; Walt Minnick, Idaho; Collin Peterson, Minn.; Heath Shuler, N.C.; and Gene Taylor, Miss. The other dissenter, Pete DeFazio of Oregon, backed the original bill. What kind of message are these Democrats sending, voting against their leadership and the president? Many hold conservative districts, so leadership has to allow them to vote conservatively for the sake of the next election. The divided Democrat vote, though, is something Republicans have used for leverage.
"The only bipartisan vote has been on the 'no' side," said Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
Two groups that support the stimulus, Americans United for Change and labor union AFSCME, launched radio spots attacking one of the Blue Dogs, Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, for his vote on the initial stimulus-this time he flipped to support the legislation.
The Blue Dogs-even those who voted for the stimulus-are pushing "pay-go" rules, where Congress must have revenue for every dollar it spends, as the next legislative goal.
"If the rule says it's got to be paid for, you can . . . complain all you want, that's the way the deal works," said Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Blue Dog Democrat from Louisiana. "If you can put those rules in place, Republicans and Democrats alike realize that's what you have to live by."
After the Blue Dogs met with the president on Tuesday, Melancon thought Obama would back their push for pay-go rules-though many Democrats oppose it: "We're a minority within a majority that appears to have a president that is on the same page that we're on."
Melancon himself had a tough decision on the vote-his district is suffering acutely from the recession, and some funds in the bill would go toward hurricane recovery in Louisiana. In the end, he voted for it.
But another Louisiana congressman, Joseph Cao, the first Republican elected to his district in over a century, voted against the stimulus, inviting comments that he might only make it through one-term in Congress.
Before the vote, Boehner hauled the thousand-page legislation to the floor where he told the chamber, "Not one member of this body has read it," and threw it to the ground where it made a heavy thump.
"This is the epitome, the epitome of what I came here to stop," he added.
Appropriations Chairman David Obey, a Democrat who was a major figure in the composition of the bill, shrugged off Boehner's frustration: "You show me a smaller problem we have to confront and I'll produce a smaller bill."
Though Republicans oppose the bill, "We hope it works," said No. 2 House Republican leader Eric Cantor, after the vote.
In the Senate, all 38 "no" votes were from Republicans, with GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania breaking ranks and casting "yes" votes along with the chamber's Democrats.