WASHINGTON – Economic stimulus legislation at the heart of President Barack Obama's recovery plan is on track for final votes in the House and Senate after a dizzying final round of bargaining that yielded agreement on tax cuts and spending totaling $789 billion.
Obama, who has campaigned energetically for the legislation, welcomed the agreement, saying it would "save or create more than 3.5 million jobs and get our economy back on track."
The $500-per-worker credit for lower- and middle-income taxpayers that Obama outlined during his presidential campaign was scaled back to $400 during bargaining by the Democratic-controlled Congress and White House. Couples would receive $800 instead of $1,000. Over two years, that move would pump about $25 billion less into the economy than had been previously planned.
Officials estimated it would mean about $13 a week more in people's paychecks when withholding tables are adjusted in late spring. Critics say that's unlikely to do much to boost consumption.
Millions of people receiving Social Security benefits would get a one-time payment of $250 under the agreement, along with veterans receiving pensions, and poor people receiving Supplemental Security Income payments.
An additional $46 billion would go to transportation projects such as highway, bridge and mass transit construction; many lawmakers wanted more.
The House could vote on the bill as early as Thursday, though Friday seemed more likely. The Senate would follow, but its schedule is less certain.
The Obama plan offers a 60 percent subsidy to help unemployed people pay health insurance premiums under the COBRA program and divvies up $87 billion among the states to help them with their Medicaid costs for the next two years. It provides $19 billion to modernize health information technology systems, even though such funding will create few jobs right away.
To tamp down costs, several tax provisions were dropped or sharply cut back. A provision popular with Republicans and the big business lobby that would have awarded about $54 billion to money-losing businesses over the next two years was instead limited to small businesses, greatly reducing its cost.
A $15,000 tax credit for anybody buying a home over the next year was dropped; instead, first-time homebuyers could claim an $8,000 credit for homes bought by the end of August. Car buyers could deduct the sales tax they paid on a new car but not the interest on their car loans.
But nothing could shake negotiators from insisting on including $70 billion to shelter middle- to upper-income taxpayers from the alternative minimum tax, originally passed a generation ago to make sure the super-rich didn't avoid taxes.
The move is aimed at easing headaches that would follow if Congress passed it later in the year — rather than creating jobs. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that provision will have relatively little impact on the economy.
In late-stage talks, Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pressed for $8 billion to construct high-speed rail lines, quadrupling the amount in the bill that passed the Senate on Tuesday.
Reid's office issued a statement noting that a proposed Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas rail might get a big chunk of the money.
Scaling back the bill to levels lower than either the $838 billion Senate measure or the original $820 billion House-passed measure caused grumbling among liberal Democrats, who described the cutbacks as a concession to the moderates, particularly Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who are feeling heat from constituents for supporting the bill.
Specter played an active role, however, in making sure $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health, a pet priority, wasn't cut back.
After final agreements were sealed Wednesday afternoon, staff aides worked into the night drafting and double-checking in hopes of officially unveiling the measure Thursday.