Senate GOP Blocks Democrats’ Economic Stimulus Plan
Senate Republicans yesterday prevented a vote on a $73 billion, Democratic-sponsored economic stimulus bill that included subsidies to help unemployed workers purchase health insurance, the Washington Post reports (Kessler, Washington Post, 11/15). The action effectively "killed" the legislation, and "accelerated talks about alternatives" (Clymer, New York Times, 11/15). The bill would have provided $14.3 billion to extend benefits for unemployed workers by 13 weeks and $12.3 billion to help unemployed workers purchase health coverage through COBRA. COBRA, the 1986 Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, allows unemployed workers to retain health coverage under their former employers' insurance plans by paying 102% of the premiums. The legislation would also have allowed states to extend Medicaid coverage to unemployed workers who do not qualify for COBRA and provided $1.4 billion to boost the federal match to states for Medicaid. In addition, the bill included several tax provisions to help businesses and low-income workers (California Healthline, 11/9). The legislation also included a $15 billion provision sponsored by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) to improve homeland security, including bioterrorism and food safety measures (Hook, Los Angeles Times, 11/15). Senate Republicans used two procedural votes to defeat the legislation. Under Senate rules, Democrats needed 60 votes to "overcome Republican objections" to the bill and vote on it (Washington Post, 11/15). In the votes, all 50 Democrats and Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.) voted to overturn the objections, while 47 Republicans backed the objections. Two Republicans did not vote. GOP lawmakers' objections said that the Democrats' bill exceeded provisions for tax cuts and spending in the fiscal year 2002 budget resolution and that the homeland security provision did not qualify as an "emergency" under the 1997 Balanced Budget Act, which would have been necessary to approve the extra spending (New York Times, 11/15).
The votes "were a victory" for Republicans and President Bush, who have said that the bill proposed by Senate Democrats included "too much spending and not enough tax cuts to be an effective stimulus to the economy" (Los Angeles Times, 11/15). Last month, the House approved a $100 billion GOP-sponsored bill, which Bush supports, that includes a number of tax cuts and would increase funding for the Social Security Block Grant program by $3 billion to allow states to provide health insurance to unemployed workers and their families (California Healthline, 10/29). In a statement, the Bush administration "condemned" the Senate bill's unemployment and health insurance provisions as "likely to permanently expand the size and scope of the federal government" and said they would "do little" to improve the economy (Washington Post, 11/15). But Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said that without the health insurance provision, unemployed workers would have to spend 65% of their unemployment benefits to purchase health coverage through COBRA, a figure that would drop to 16% under the Democratic legislation. "We are effectively guaranteeing to laid off workers, on the issue of health, that it is imperative that any action on a stimulus bill have a health component," he said (Mullins/Rovner, CongressDaily, 11/14). Byrd also defended the homeland security provision in the bill. "We are now faced with security threats that were not foreseen last month -- the stuff of nightmares. Anthrax appeared like a vampire in the night, sapping us of our customary optimism. The threat of smallpox may face us for the first time in over 20 years," he said (New York Times, 11/15).
The Miami Herald reports that the votes yesterday set the "stage for make-or-break negotiations" on an economic stimulus bill (Kuhnhenn, Miami Herald, 11/15). According to the Washington Post, the "impasse" on a bill is expected to prompt "high-level negotiations" on a compromise. However, the "indecisive floor battle" in the Senate has "hardened positions" on a number of issues, "making it more difficult to reach a quick agreement." The Bush administration has urged lawmakers to begin negotiations (Washington Post, 11/15). CongressDaily reports that Senate and administration leaders plan to meet with House leaders Thursday to begin negotiations on a bipartisan bill (Norton, CongressDaily, 11/14). The compromise legislation would likely include tax provisions, an extension of unemployment benefits and "some kind of aid" to help unemployed workers purchase health insurance. The Los Angeles Times reports that House and Senate leaders will likely draft a compromise by early December (Los Angeles Times, 11/15). However, some analysts say Congress may not pass an economic stimulus bill this year (Miami Herald, 11/15).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.