Congress approves stimulus, handing Obama first victory

Washington  - US President Barack Obama's much-vaunted economic recovery package cleared its final hurdles Friday as both houses of Congress approved a
787-billion-dollar compromise bill designed to pull the country out of its worst recession in decades.

The long-awaited passage of the stimulus bill - the largest single spending proposal in US history - marked Obama's first major legislative victory since he took office January 20. The president could sign it into law as early as Monday, the White House said.

But the victory did not come with the bipartisan support his administration had originally hoped for. Obama instead relied on the Democratic Party's majorities in both chambers.

The House of Representatives approved the plan 246-183 Friday afternoon. Not one member of the House's Republicans supported the measure and seven Democratic congressmen also voted against the bill.

The Senate followed suit Friday evening by 60-38, garnering the support of only three Republicans and just barely meeting the 60-vote threshold. Democrats were forced to keep extend the voting process by five hours, allowing Democrat Sherrod Brown to fly into Washington from his mother's wake in Ohio and cast the tie-breaking vote.

Obama called the stimulus package, the cornerstone of his economic recovery plans, a "once-in-a-generation chance to act boldly and turn adversity into opportunity" in an address to business leaders at the White House ahead of the votes.

The administration insists the package - a mixture of tax cuts and spending programmes - will save or create 3.5 million jobs over the next two years and upgrade the country's ailing infrastructure, energy, health care and education system.

But the spending projects come with restrictions that some businesses fear could spark a trade war with other nations. The so- called Buy American provisions bars foreign steel and manufacturing goods from being purchased with stimulus funds.

The measure was modified last week and no longer applies to many countries that have trade agreements with the United States. But emerging economies like China, India and Brazil are not included and could raise their own tariffs for US exports in response.

Obama's victory on the stimulus did not come easy. Most Republicans vociferously opposed the plan throughout its six-week crafting process. It was derided as too large and focussed on government spending rather than tax cuts that they said would better revive the economy.

"We owe it to the American people to get this bill right," said John Boehner, the top Republican in the House of Representatives. "I don't believe this is the way to do it."

Some Democrats by contrast complained that the final bill was too small to address the country's worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The measure at one time grew as high as 930 billion dollars.

About 3.6 million jobs have been lost since the United States entered a recession in December 2007. The world's largest economy contracted by 3.8 per cent in the final quarter of 2008 and most economists fear even worse in the current quarter.

The final votes came after the House and Senate on Wednesday announced that they had agreed on a deal that could squeeze the legislation through both houses of Congress.

The two chambers had each passed separate versions of the legislation, with the Senate approving an 838-billion-dollar bill Tuesday and the House passing an
819-billion-dollar version last week. Both were approved mostly along the same party lines as Friday's votes.

Obama himself began the legislative process by reaching out to Republicans, meeting with conservative legislators and following through on a campaign process to bring a more bipartisan tone to Washington.

But the sentiment quickly evaporated as the bill stalled in Congress. Obama began warning that any further delay could cost thousands more jobs and chastised Republicans for "failed ideas" and ignoring the outcome of the November 4 general election.

Republican leaders retorted that Democratic lawmakers had ignored Obama's call for bipartisanship and failed to include the opposition in the writing of the legislation.

Many Republicans and even some Democrats on Friday complained the process was being unnecessarily rushed through the legislature in order to meet a self-imposed deadline of this weekend.

The final text of the more than 1,000-page compromise bill was only released to legislators late Thursday night.

Obama warned that the economic crisis was far from over despite the new injection of government funds into the world's largest economy.

"Passing this plan is a critical step," he said. "But it is only the beginning." (dpa)