WASHINGTON, Friday, Feb. 8—Under pressure from seniors and House Democratic leaders, Congress gave final approval to a stimulus package that includes $300 rebates for 20 million low-income older Americans and 250,000 disabled veterans.
Approval came after a few days of jockeying between the House and Senate and massive numbers of phone calls and e-mails to Capitol Hill from seniors and other interested groups not included in the original House package. The Senate plan did include seniors, but also wrapped in other costly provisions, such as extended unemployment benefits and energy tax credits. Republicans filibustered the Senate package and Democrats were unable to break the talk-a-thon.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., publicly called on the Senate to slim down the package and get something done so Congress could avoid the "do-nothing" label. Facing all of that, it did.
Action came as a new Associated Press poll showed both Congress and the president at their lowest approval ratings in years—22 percent for Congress and 30 percent for the president. Both marks dropped by 4 percentage points since January.
Faced with that perception and a faltering economy, Congress approved the whole package in about two weeks, showing it could move quickly if the stakes were high enough.
The final result is a $168 billion stimulus bill that President George W. Bush says he'll sign. Checks could start going out as soon as May, according to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.
"AARP congratulates Senate leaders, who came together across partisan divides to create a package that will include older Americans to fairly and effectively boost our troubled economy," said AARP CEO Bill Novelli.
"We think problems that affect everyone require solutions that involve everyone. Today we learned what can happen when Americans engage our leaders—and when leaders push through partisan gridlock—to address national problems. AARP and our 39 million members are proud to have played a part."
The basic plan would grant $600 payments for individuals and $1,200 for couples, plus $300 for each child younger than 17. It would begin to phase out eligibility at $75,000 in adjusted gross income for individuals and at $150,000 for couples. Workers who earned $3,000 last year—too little on which to pay income taxes—would be eligible for payments of $300.
Those $300 payments would also go to seniors, disabled veterans and veterans' widows who could show $3,000 in Social Security or veterans' disability benefits.
Senators also tightened the rules to prevent illegal immigrants from claiming payments.
Politically, both Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., who are battling for the Democratic nomination for president, backed the plan and voted aye on Wednesday, but were not present for Thursday's final vote. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the front-runner in the Republican presidential nominating contest, had skipped the earlier vote, but on Thursday went to the Senate and voted for the plan, siding with moderate Republicans and not the 16 members of the GOP who voted no.
In all, the payments would cost the Treasury $105.7 billion, all of which would be added to the budget deficit. That didn't appear to bother either Congress or the president.
Bush said the plan is "robust, broad-based, timely, and it will be effective. This bill will help to stimulate consumer spending and accelerate needed business investment."