WASHINGTON — The Senate voted last week to release $350 billion in federal bailout funds to the incoming Barack Obama administration, the second half of an initiative that so far has failed to brake the country’s economic slide.
Senators voted 52-42 in favor of making the money available to Obama, after he personally lobbied many of them for the funding. The money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program would be spent in an attempt to bolster the nation’s financial institutions and on a “sweeping” effort to reduce foreclosures, he said.
The TARP effort had become politically unpopular as senators complained about how the Bush administration managed the first installment of $350 billion that was released in October.
But advocates for making fresh money available, mostly Democrats, argued that Obama should be given all the tools he can use to try to reverse the falling economy. They noted the incoming president had promised more accountability than senators believed they got from Bush.
Critics, mostly Republicans, expressed skepticism. They also said they opposed some of the initiatives Obama wanted to pursue within TARP, such as changing bankruptcy laws to allow judges to write down troubled mortgages.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., voted to release the TARP funds. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., voted against releasing the funds.
The House voted 289-139 to expand the federal health insurance program for children from low-income families.
President Bush twice vetoed bills to broaden the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. But President-elect Obama welcomed the action and said he will sign the bill if it passes the Senate.
The House bill would spend $35 billion over 41/2 years to enroll 4 million more children for state-run health insurance, for a total 11 million receiving care.
The coverage would be funded mostly through a cigarette tax of 61 cents per pack, and by reducing federal payments to specialty hospitals that concentrate on only one or two areas, like orthopedics or women’s medicine.
Democratic sponsors said the bill was the first step toward an Obama promise to provide health insurance for all Americans.
Critics mostly were Republicans, who said the bill was too broad and would allow for coverage in some families that could afford private health insurance.
They also said provisions that allow coverage for children of immigrants who have been in the country fewer that five years would open loopholes to abuse by illegal immigrants.
Reps. Shelley Berkley and Dina Titus, both D-Nev., voted for the bill. Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., voted against it.
FEDERAL LANDS BILL PASSED
The Senate voted 73-21 for what was called the most sweeping conservation measure to be taken up by Congress in years. The bill would set aside 2 million acres of protected wilderness areas across nine states and designate more than 1,000 acres to the system of wild and scenic rivers.
The measure actually was an agglomeration of more than 160 individual bills that had been stalled in the last Congress.
The umbrella bill was supported by most senators from both parties. But it was opposed by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a conservative who complained it was filled with wasteful spending and was being rushed without full debate.
After several days of delay, advocates of the bill overcame Coburn’s opposition.
Reid voted for the bill. Ensign voted against it.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault @stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.