WASHINGTON - An $838 billion economic stimulus bill backed by the White House survived a crucial test vote in the Senate Monday despite strong Republican opposition, and Democratic leaders vowed to deliver legislation for President Barack Obama's signature within a few days.
Monday's vote was 61-36, one more than the 60 needed to advance the measure toward Senate passage on Tuesday. That in turn, will set the stage for possibly contentious negotiations with the House on a final compromise on legislation the president says is needed desperately to tackle the worst economic crisis in more than a generation.
The Senate vote occurred as the Obama administration moved ahead on another major component of its economic recovery plan. Officials said Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner would outline rules on Tuesday for $350 billion in bailout funds designed to help the financial industry as well as homeowners facing foreclosure.
Hours after the Senate stimulus vote, Obama pressed the House and Senate to come together and urgently give final passage to the bill.
With the nation falling deeper into recession, Obama used the first prime-time news conference of his presidency to warn that a failure to act “could turn a crisis into a catastrophe.”
He defended his plan against Republican criticism that it is loaded with pork-barrel spending and will not create jobs.
“The plan is not perfect,” the president said, addressing the nation. “No plan is. I can’t tell you for sure that everything in this plan will work exactly as we hope, but I can tell you with complete confidence that a failure to act will only deepen this crisis as well as the pain felt by millions of Americans.”
Obama said 90 percent of the jobs created by the plan would be in the private sector, rebuilding crumbling roads, bridges and other aging infrastructure.
Republicans break ranks
Monday's Senate vote was close but scarcely in doubt once the White House and Democratic leaders agreed to trim about $100 billion on Friday.
As a result, Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania broke ranks to cast their votes to advance the bill.
Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, battling a brain tumor, made his first appearance in the Capitol since suffering a seizure on Inauguration Day, and he joined all other Democrats in support of the measure.
"There is no reason we can't do this by the end of the week," said Majority Leader Harry Reid. He said he was prepared to hold the Senate in session into the Presidents Day weekend if necessary and cautioned Republicans not to try and delay final progress.
He said passage would mark "the first step on the long road to recovery."
Moments before the vote, the Congressional Budget Office issued a new estimate that put the cost at $838 billion, an increase from the $827 billion figure from last week.
"This bill has the votes to pass. We know that," conceded Sen. John Thune, a Republican who has spoken daily in the Senate against the legislation.
Even so, in the hours before Monday's vote, he and other Republican opponents attacked it as too costly, and unlikely to have the desired effect on the economy. "This is a spending bill, not a stimulus bill," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican.
All 36 votes in opposition were cast by Republicans.
Working out the differences
The two remaining versions of the legislation are relatively close in size — $838 billion in the Senate and $819 billion in the House, and are similar in many respects.
At the same time, the differences are considerable.
The measure nearing approval in the Senate calls for more tax cuts and less spending than the House bill, largely because it includes a $70 billion provision to protect middle-class taxpayers from falling victim to the alternative minimum tax, which was intended to make sure the very wealthy do not avoid paying taxes.
Both houses provide for tax breaks for home buyers, but the Senate's provision is far more generous. The Senate bill also gives a tax break to purchasers of new cars.
Both houses provide $87 billion in additional funds for the Medicaid program, which provides health care to the low income. But the House and Senate differ on the formula to be used in distributing the money, a dispute that pits states against one another rather than Republicans against Democrats.
There are dozens of differences on spending.
The Senate proposed $450 million for NASA for exploration, for example, $50 million less than the House. It also eliminated the House's call for money to combat a potential flu pandemic.
On the other hand, the Senate bill calls for several billion more in spending for research at the National Institutes of Health, the result of an amendment backed last week by Specter.Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.