USA

House approves massive economic stimulus bill

A sharply divided US House of Representatives approved an $819 billion economic stimulus plan by 244 votes to 188, handing President Barack Obama his first major legislative victory. But the bill was passed without a single Republican vote.

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AFP - Handing US President Barack Obama his first big win, the divided US House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a huge stimulus bill he touted as vital to saving the US economy from collapse.

But the 819-billion-dollar measure passed without a single vote from Obama's Republican foes, frustrating his high-profile hunt for bipartisan support after campaign promises to drain Washington politics of decades of bile.

Still, Obama said he was "grateful" after the House approved the measure by a vote margin of 244-188, with 11 Democrats joining Republicans, and that he was willing to make changes to the legislation as it moves through the Senate.

"I hope that we can continue to strengthen this plan before it gets to my desk," the president, who has pushed the Congress to pass a final measure by mid-February, said in a statement.

"But what we can’t do is drag our feet or allow the same partisan differences to get in our way. We must move swiftly and boldly to put Americans back to work, and that is exactly what this plan begins to do," he said.

Republicans, who lacked the votes to block the bill in the House but have significantly more clout in the Senate, promised not to be merely "the party of 'no'" and signaled they would keep fighting for tax cuts as the best remedy.

"Fast-acting tax relief will create more jobs in America than a lot of slow-moving government programs," House Minority Leader John Boehner said before the Republicans' rival bill went down to defeat 266-170.

"We want to work with the president. We’ve made clear to him that he’s reached out and we’re reaching out to him because at the end of the day, the American people need a plan that works," said Boehner.

Democrats noted that Boehner had instructed his troops to vote against the measure on Tuesday, hours before Obama wooed Republican support in separate closed-door meetings with party members in the House and Senate.

"Today's vote is a victory for the American people," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who predicted the plan would help create or save three-four million US jobs.

After the US Senate passes its version of the bill, the two chambers will name a "conference" to work out a final compromise measure that, if passed by both sides, would go to Obama.

"There will be a vote tonight, there will be a vote next week, there will be votes the weeks after that, until we eventually have what we think will be a bipartisan proposal to get this economy moving again," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

The House vote came hours after Obama made a last-minute call for Republican votes, demanding "bold and swift" action to resurrect US jobs and arrest the US economy's brutal downward slide.

The vote took place against a grim backdrop of more painful economic news as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Wednesday forecast the US economy was set to contract by 1.6 percent in 2009 amid severe financial strains.

Under pressure from Obama, Democrats pulled two measures that had drawn Republican ire: Millions to help states meet family planning costs and to refurbish the National Mall, the site of his historic inauguration a week ago.

The stimulus plan includes about 275 billion dollars in tax cuts, including a credit worth 500 dollars for each worker and 1,000 dollars for couples.

Most of the package's value however is in infrastructure spending, including more than 60 billion dollars for new power grids and to government buildings energy efficient.

Forty-one billion dollars more would go on modernizing US schools, 30 billion on highways construction and six billion to expand rural access to broadband Internet.

Some money is intended for social welfare spending, which Republicans oppose, and includes 79 billion dollars in help to state governments to prevent cuts to key services, 43 billion to increase unemployment benefits and 87 billion to expand healthcare insurance for the poorest.

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