WASHINGTON--A Senate panel approved major portions of the Democrats' "stimulus" bill on Tuesday over objections from Republicans that debate had been squelched and not even one hearing had been held on the topic.
"The goal of this package is to find ways to stimulate the private sector through public-sector spending," said Committee Chair Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). "We have no interest in enlarging the federal bureaucracy."
Yet a failure to act, Inouye said, could result in economic problems for years to come.
The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 21 to 9 to pass the spending package which, among other things, allocates $650 million to the digital-converter box coupon program, which the Senate agreed on Monday night to extend until June.
The committee's spending bill gives $9 billion to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in order to improve broadband access, stipulating that 50 percent of the funds must go to projects in rural areas--a point of contention in the House of Representatives. It also gives the NTIA authority to impose grant conditions with respect to nondiscrimination requirements.
The appropriations bill also allocates approximately $49 billion in spending on energy provisions, including $40 billion going through the Department of Energy. More than $14.3 billion is allocated to the department for grants and other expenses relating to energy efficiency and renewable energy. An extra $10 billion is allocated to fund the loan guarantees authorized in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
President Obama met with Republican leaders on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to discuss the legislation. Obama's support for such a large "stimulus" bill appears to be a reversal of his position during the campaign, when he said during a debate with Republican John McCain: "Now, what I've done throughout this campaign is to propose a net spending cut...Every dollar that I've proposed, I've proposed an additional cut so that it matches."
Other measures in the legislation include:
- $5 billion for health information technology.
- $1.5 billion for NASA, including $500 million to acquire data about the Earth's resources and climate.
- $1.4 billion for the National Science Foundation to use for research, infrastructure, and grants.
- $14 million to support cybersecurity efforts within the Department of Homeland Security.
- $575 million for the National Institute of Standards of Technology.
- $200 million to develop a nationwide integrated wireless network for federal law enforcement.
All the amendments to the bill offered in the committee were withdrawn at Inouye's request that they be offered when the bill goes before the full Senate. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is prepared to offer an amendment pertaining to broadband investments, but his office has not released any details about the amendment.
As in the House, Republican senators complained that the legislation was moving too quickly through Congress and that many of the measures were too vague.
"There's a process of ready, aim, fire," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). "This looks like fire, ready, aim. We just authorized a whole year's discretionary nondefense spending without a hearing, without a series of amendments, without engaging this side at all."
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) voted against the bill, saying there should be more specific information about how the money will be appropriated. She recommended appropriations guidelines such as a population standard, a jobless rate standard, or a foreclosure rate standard.
"It just seems to me (that) if you don't have earmarks, someone is going to make these decisions, and it is going to be agencies and bureaucracies," she said. "There should be some standard by which we can judge where this money is going."
Republicans also expressed concern that the spending bill would not stimulate the economy, at least not quickly enough. Democrats countered that the bill provided a good balance of immediate stimulus and long-term investments.
"I don't think there's anything we can do in appropriations to put all these people back to work right now," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.). "Anyone who thinks we can get out of this recession this year is sadly mistaken--it's going to take a couple years."
What the committee can do, he said, "is lay the groundwork for recovery."
Dorgan and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), praised the bill's $5 billion investment in health care IT as a way to create new jobs and lay the groundwork for more health care reform.