Ways and Means Panel Moves $357 Billion Stimulus Bill

The House Ways and Means Committee split along party lines Thursday to move a $367 billion economic stimulus package to the House floor.

Abandoning any pretense of bipartisanship, committee Republicans resignedly said they would take their case directly to the new Democratic president for arbitration after several attempts in committee to alter or delete the tax and spending initiatives in the bill were routinely dismissed by majority Democrats. The final vote to report the bill favorably to the floor, for inclusion in a companion measure that currently calls for $825 billion in all to stoke faltering economic growth and create jobs, was 24 to 13.

In addition to providing some $303 billion in tax relief to individuals and businesses, the bill contains spending add-ons to promote a swifter shift by health care providers to state-of-the-art computerized record-keeping technology, $466 billion in expanded jobless benefits and welfare programs and $28.6 billion in subsidies to help early retirees or out-of-work employees pay the higher costs for COBRA health insurance coverage.

In the course of debate on the bill (H.R. 598), the committee rejected about 20 Republican amendments, accepting only two that were relatively insignificant in terms of their impact on the legislation.

After approving by voice vote an amendment by Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., to add back three provisions that had inadvertently been dropped from Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel's mark, the panel took up a barrage of GOP-sponsored changes.

Ranking member Dave Camp, R-Mich., proposed to deny refundable income tax relief for "people who don't pay taxes," pointing out that the number of such low-wage workers would rise to 20 million from the 15 million who already receive payments under the earned income tax credit program. Camp's amendment was defeated, 23-14, after Rep. Steve Neal, D-Mass., insisted that a stimulus tax break should be devoted mainly to lower-income workers who would be most likely to spend it quickly and boost the economy.

Another amendment, by Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, to eliminate the federal income tax withholding on unemployment benefits, was rejected 24-14, after Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., said it would mainly end up benefiting higher income workers and provide little help for the low-wage jobless.

An amendment by Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, would have provided a one-year patch for the alternative minimum tax, costing $70 billion in lost revenue, in 2009. It was turned down, 24-14, after Rangel said the AMT issue would be dealt with in regular tax legislation later this year.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., offered an amendment to make permanent the Bush administration's cutbacks in capital gains and dividends rates. Those cuts are scheduled to expire in 2010. It was quashed by a voice vote.

An amendment by Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Fla., directing the GAO to conduct separate studies to determine any comparative cost savings from the COBRA subsidies, the information technology (IT) improvements for health care costs, and the Medicare program, was defeated 23-14. Stark contended such studies now are premature and that the Treasury Department needed time to manage the tax implications of such programs before studies would be fruitful.

Nevada Rep. Dean Heller's amendment to extend and alter the homebuyer's tax credit for primary-residence purchases through the end of this year was rejected, 23-14. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said the proposal would tack on $1.7 billion to the cost of the package. That was the only Republican roll call vote that attracted a Democrat, Shelley Berkley of Nevada, to the GOP side.

Rejected by voice votes were a number of other Republican amendments, including proposals by:

• Johnson to permit newly-eligible Medicare recipients to opt out of the Part A (hospitalization) benefit;

• Rep. Charles Boustany, of Louisiana, to delay the effective date of the IT program until the Secretary of Health and Human Services determined the impact of security and confidentiality standards on the sharing of patients' health conditions among providers;

• Rep. Geoff Davis, of Kentucky, to raise the tax credit on energy-saving home improvements to $5,000 from the $1,500 in the bill;

• Brown-Waite to strike language expanding jobless pay eligibility to workers not now covered;

• Johnson amendment to substantially hike tax write-offs for health care providers who install new IT equipment, to comply with the bill's requirements;

• Rep. Wally Herger, of California, to require that providers give up-to-date reports for public inspection on their costs;

• Boustany to bar HHS from using any results of comparative effectiveness research on the clinical findings or risks and benefits for two or more medical treatments;

• Rep. Dave Reichert, of Washington, to require that HHS certify IT systems are available to providers before releasing reimbursements for the purchase of the appropriate software and equipment;

• Davis to ensure that all states receive their full share of the bill's $7 billion in federal unemployment funds without requiring the states to permanently expand eligibility for benefits;

• Rep. John Linder, of Georgia, to require states to enroll long-term jobless workers in education and training programs as a condition of receiving emergency jobless pay;

• Rangel accepted without a debate an amendment by Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., directing the GAO to provide the committee with regular reports on the economic, employment and related effects of the Democrats' plan.