House-Senate negotiators were putting the final touches on a $790 billion economic stimulus package late Wednesday, readying the measure for final passage before the Presidents Day recess as pushed by President Obama.
"I want to thank the Democrats and Republicans in Congress who came together around a hard-fought compromise that will save or create more than 3.5 million jobs and get our economy back on track," Obama said in a statement.
Many priorities for both sides were jettisoned in the final deliberations, ranging from tax cuts for big corporations to veterans' funding. "It appears that congressional Democrats have made a bad bill worse by reducing tax relief for working families to pay for more wasteful government spending," House Minority Leader Boehner said.
Some House Democrats appeared just as perturbed as their GOP colleagues, who have continually complained about being shut out of the discussions. "On almost every issue, we took a `haircut' the Senate gave us," said Rep. James Moran, D-Va., although he was quick to note that "I'm not upset at the leadership; I'm just upset at the process."
But the bill is likely headed to Obama's desk despite the grumbling, lawmakers said. "Half a loaf is better than no loaf at all," said Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., who complained about school construction and her state's Medicaid allotment being curtailed.
Initially, only recipients of Troubled Asset Relief Program funding were to be excluded from the bill's signature business tax break, an extended five-year carry-back of net operating losses. But to make the cost fit within the reduced budget target, Democratic leaders agreed to cut the provision to about $2 billion, limited only to small businesses. House Ways and Means Select Revenue Measures Subcommittee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., was not happy about that change.
"They're keeping a very tiny part of it, and I thought the NOL provision would have helped us sell this across the country," Neal said. "My argument here is you could defend every provision that came out of the House in the tax title. It was equitable; it was fair, and it was evenly distributed. And it was for the purpose of saying we would provide relief across the board."
Even with the hold-harmless treatment for smaller firms, overall small-business tax cuts amount to less than 1 percent of the final bill. "More can be done, when you compare it to TARP money that went to the largest banks in America," said House Small Business Chairwoman Nydia Velazquez.
Concerns raised by the Congressional Black Caucus were addressed after they sent a letter to House Speaker Pelosi earlier Wednesday. The compromise is expected to include $2 billion in additional money for rural broadband development over the Senate's bill and $10 billion in additional state stabilization funding directed toward school repairs. But members of the group continued to push for an additional $4.2 billion in funding for neighborhood stabilization programs to help stem the impact of the mortgage crisis and cut from the House bill.
"None of us will be completely happy, but it sounds like something we'll have to live with," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., a member of the CBC, said about the bill.
CBC members are not the only ones angry about the neighborhood funding not being reinstated, particularly in light of the Obama administration's plans announced Tuesday to deal with the problems in the mortgage industry. "They've [the Obama White House] got a deaf ear on the thing that caused the problem," said one Democratic lawmaker.