WASHINGTON (AP) – Retirees living off Social Security are frustrated that they won't get tax rebate checks through a bipartisan economic stimulus package before the House. Senate Democrats Friday began efforts to include them.
The Senate is also considering an extension of jobless benefits to the $150 billion package of rebates and business tax cuts in a deal wrapped up Thursday between House leaders and President Bush.
Bush urged Congress on Friday to quickly pass the package without any further spending. "I strongly believe it would be a mistake to delay or derail this bill," Bush said.
"I understand the desire to add provisions from both the right and the left," he said, adding that would be an error.
Senate Democrats are refusing to rubber stamp the House measure. That raises the possibility of protracted negotiations if Democrats are successful in adding giving retirees tax rebates, extending unemployment benefits, boosting heating subsidies for the poor and temporarily increasing food stamp payments.
Those are all items floated by top Senate Democrats left out of the negotiations between the administration and House leaders.
They were all considered but tossed overboard in intense talks that produced a hard-won agreement among Bush, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader John Boehner.
Their plan would give individual taxpayers up to $600 in rebates, working couples $1,200 and those with children an additional $300 per child. The rebates would phase out gradually for individuals whose adjusted gross income exceeds $75,000 and for couples with incomes above $150,000.
But it would leave out about 20 million senior citizens living chiefly on Social Security. They wouldn't get rebate checks unless they have at least $3,000 earned income or pay income taxes based on other sources such as earnings, interest, investments or private pension plans.
"Less than half of all Americans 65 and older would get it," said AARP spokesman Jim Dau.
It's not clear whether seniors would ultimately be included in the final bill sent to Bush's desk.
The House is planning to pass the measure as early as Tuesday, though Senate debate won't begin until its Finance Committee drafts and votes on an alternative, perhaps on Thursday. That gives the Senate two weeks to pass its bill, reach an agreement with the House and Bush and meet Majority Leader Harry Reid's promise of wrapping it all up by Feb. 15.
At a news conference Thursday, Pelosi, Boehner and Paulson were careful to respect the Senate's right to change the bill.
"This is not going to preclude the Senate from being the Senate and doing what they do," said Boehner.
At the same time, however, the three clearly believe that the Senate will feel enormous pressure to largely stick with the outlines of the Bush-Pelosi-Boehner agreement.
The worry is that the Senate will load up the bill with costly ideas that could provoke a confrontation with Bush and slow down the bill — and delay mailing the rebate checks.
It's particularly risky for Democrats controlling Congress, who might get blamed for any delays. But Democrats vowed the bill will still get sent to Bush's desk within three weeks and they promised not to go overboard.
"Pigs get fat. Hogs get slaughtered," said a top Senate Democratic staff aide. "We're not interested in loading this up."
Much debate centers on whether to extend unemployment benefits for jobless people whose benefits have run out. Some Democrats, such as Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, were livid that unemployment insurance was dropped by Pelosi in end-stage talks on Wednesday.
Senate Democrats appear confident they can muster the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles in front of efforts to boost unemployment benefits. If unemployment insurance is part of a Senate bill sent back over to the House, Pelosi would face a quandary: Should she stand by her deal with the President or side with the Senate?
Some Democrats think Bush would have a difficult time threatening a veto over unemployment insurance.
The Senate often prevails in its battles with the House, often because once the Senate musters bipartisan support for legislation, their negotiators simply insist that any changes could provoke a minority party filibuster.
But this is one time when the House seems to have the upper hand.
"Boehner told (Pelosi) very early on … let's try to get something done here that the White House can agree on and so we can thrust it upon the Senate," said a senior House GOP aide. "The unspoken word was that she could jam this down Harry Reid's throat and I think she likes that idea."