Capitol Hill action on an economic stimulus bill has shifted to the Senate, which has begun to debate a package estimated at $888 billion. At least several days of discussion and amendments are expected.

It appears that the Senate package's estimated $160 billion in construction-related spending is safe and that Democrats may seek to add more money for such infrastructure accounts as highways and Corps of Engineers water projects.

Sen. Barbara Boxer
Photo: AP
Sen. Barbara Boxer favors increasing highway component of stimulus.

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee leaders have stated that they favor tripling the $27-billion highway allocation that the proposal before the chamber now contains. Committee Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the committee's top Republican, James Inhofe (Okla.), and Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) told Appropriations Committee leaders on Jan.23 that highway spending "should be at least 10% of the total stimulus package." That would equal about $89 billion out of the $888-billion Senate proposal. But it's unclear whether they will propose a floor amendment to add the highway funds.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) says she is working to increase stimulus funds for another key infrastructure program. She says she wants to double the amount recommended for Corps of Engineers civil works projects, to about $9 billion.

The Senate's top Republican, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) says he wants to see mortgage-assistance and tax-cut provisions. McConnell told reporters on Feb. 2 that there's GOP support for a provision to bring interest rates on certain mortgages down to 4% and for cutting the 15% and 10% personal income tax rates by five percentage points each.

McConnell doesn't intend to add the cost of those two provisions to the $888 billion, but would probably seek some offsetting spending cuts, perhaps in the current package's spending on entitlement programs.

When the Senate does finish work on its stimulus bill, it would have to be reconciled with the $819.5-billion measure that the House passed on Jan. 28. The bill passed by a 244-188 tally, but no Republican voted for it.

Democrats are aiming to get a final bill to President Obama's desk by about Feb. 16.

The House did approve a couple of important construction amendments. One rider, offered by Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), boosted funding for transit capital projects to $9 billion, from $6 billion in the version that came out of committee.

The House also approved an amendment from Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) that tightened up the "use it or lose it" requirement for transportation stimulus funding. Oberstar's amendment requires state departments of transportation or other grant recipients to obligate half of their allocations of highway, transit and airport stimulus funding within 90 days, instead of 180 days under the version that came out of committee.