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Senate Vote Clears Way for $26 Billion in Aid to States




Published: August 4, 2010


WASHINGTON — The Senate on Wednesday cleared the way to provide $10 billion to states and local school districts to prevent teacher layoffs and an additional $16 billion in federal aid to cash-strapped states, and the Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said she would summon House back from its summer recess to grant final approval to the bill.


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  • The procedural vote in the Senate was 61 to 38, with the Maine Republicans, Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, joining all Democrats in support of cutting off a filibuster. Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, was absent. The Senate is set to approve the measure on Thursday before adjourning for its summer recess.


The vote quickly prompted calls for the House, which left for its summer break last Friday, to return to Washington. And in a Twitter message on Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Pelosi said that she would bring lawmakers back next week.


While the move will interrupt summer campaigning that has already begun in earnest, the vote will give House Democrats a concrete accomplishment that they can tout as they meet constituents. Republicans, in turn, immediately criticized the bill as catering to teacher unions and the latest example of irresponsible spending by Democrats.


President Obama, who lobbied Congress to approve the aid to states and schools, praised the Senate’s action, saying in a statement that it would save teacher jobs and that “cash-strapped states can get the relief they need.”


“We had a choice,” Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said. “Either teachers could be in the classroom or they could be on the unemployment lines. I think a lot of people realized it would be better if they were in the classrooms.”


The House of Representatives initially approved the money aimed at preventing some 140,000 teacher layoffs by attaching it to an emergency war spending bill for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the Senate rejected that bill.


Some senators complained that to help pay for saving teachers’ jobs, the House bill had cut money from some of Mr. Obama’s signature education initiatives, including about $500 billion from the competitive grant program called Race to the Top.


The cost of the current version of the bill is fully paid with other spending cuts and a provision to close a tax loophole, but leaves the education programs intact.


House Republicans said it would be a mistake to adopt the Senate measure.


“Democrats would be better off listening to their constituents, who are asking, ‘Where are the jobs,’ rather than returning to Washington, D.C. to vote for more tax hikes and special interest bailouts,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader.


While Senate Democrats have found themselves mostly stymied by Republicans in recent efforts to approve new spending, many governors have been clamoring for help as they struggle with balance sheets oozing red ink.


The $16.1 billion in aid to states would increase the federal government’s contribution toward Medicaid costs, allowing states to shift money to other priorities. “We saved people’s jobs,” the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, declared at a news conference after the vote.


“The bill,” he added, “keeps hundreds of thousands of teachers, firefighters, policemen and other civil employees from being fired or laid off.”


Republican leaders, however, criticized the bill and said that the aid to states had too many strings attached to it, and that what Democrats were calling a tax “loophole” would actually amount to a nearly $10 billion tax increase on multi-national corporations.


Some Republicans also suggested that Democrats were simply aiding teacher unions.


“Washington needs to take care of its own fiscal mess, not deepen it by bailing out the states,” the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said.


Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire, said that the bill was a sop to organized labor.


“When you go to the essence of what this bill is about, it’s to pay off education unions,” he said. “Let’s not be coy about what’s happening around here. The education unions are the single biggest interest group represented at the Democratic National Convention.”


But Democrats said the measure would prevent as many as 140,000 teachers from losing their jobs as states struggling to meet balanced budget requirements slash school district payrolls. “It’s not about the teachers’ unions,” said Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington. “This is about the kids in our classrooms. This is about the future of the United States of America.”


Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said: “Congress should be focused like a laser on fighting unemployment and getting the economy humming on all cylinders again. This bill is part of that on-going effort.”


Still, because the cost of the bill is largely covered by reducing spending on other programs — meaning the federal government would not be injecting new money into the economy — its relative value as an economic stimulus measure is debatable.


Whatever its impact on the economy, the bill will also have big implications in the midterm elections. Many House members have already started campaigning as they work to defend seats in a year that anti-incumbent sentiment is running high in many parts of the country.


And while Democrats will be able to boast of helping schools and states, calling the House back into session in Washington does carry risks by interrupting the five-week messaging plan that Democratic leaders had set up last week before they returned to their districts.


Democratic leaders instructed lawmakers to hold events next week that would highlight the 75th anniversary of Social Security on Aug. 14 and to talk about how they intend to protect the program.


“Members can highlight how they are working to protect this bedrock promise,” a party memorandum said, “under assault once again from Congressional Republicans seeking to privatize and cut the benefits Americans have earned.”


But while returning to Washington would disrupt campaign activities — August is a busy month to shoot television commercials and raise money — it could also help Democrats avoid cantankerous town-hall style meetings with constituents.


Two aides to Democratic lawmakers said Wednesday afternoon that they were advised about the possibility of coming back to Washington, but were told that a firm decision could be made by day’s end.


Several members of Congress also were scheduled to be on international fact-finding trips known as CoDels, which is shorthand for Congressional Delegations, and it was unclear whether everyone could make it back to Washington.


A Democratic aide said that West Coast lawmakers, in particular, were objecting to returning to Washington because of the disruption that it would cause their schedules.


But in her Twitter message, Ms. Pelosi offered a more positive view “I will be calling the House back into session early next week to save teachers’ jobs and help seniors & children,” she wrote.