WASHINGTON — Summoned back from summer break, the House on Tuesday pushed through an emergency $26 billion jobs bill that Democrats said would save 300,000 teachers, police and others from election-year layoffs. President Barack Obama immediately signed it into law.
Lawmakers streamed back to Washington for a one-day session as Democrats declared a need to act before many children return to classrooms minus teachers laid off because of budgetary crises in states that have been hard-hit by the recession.
Republicans saw it differently, calling the bill a giveaway to teacher unions and an example of wasteful Washington spending that voters will punish the Democrats for in this fall's election.
The legislation was approved mainly along party lines by a vote of 247-161.
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The aid for the states is to be paid for mostly by closing a tax loophole used by multinational corporations and by reducing food stamp benefits for the poor.
Obama, joined by teachers at a Rose Garden ceremony earlier in the day, said, "We can't stand by and do nothing while pink slips are given to the men and women who educate our children or keep our communities safe."
Emergency workers and government employees are among those helped by the bill.
The Senate narrowly passed the measure Thursday, after the House had begun its August break.
The legislation provides $10 billion to school districts to rehire laid-off teachers or to ensure that more teachers won't be let go this year. The Education Department estimates that could save 160,000 jobs.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said his department would streamline the application process to get the money to school districts quickly. He said three-fourths of the nation's districts have said they would be opening the school year with fewer teachers and "we wanted to avert a crisis for this year."
Analysts have said the funds would not reach districts until October, at the earliest.
An additional $16 billion would extend for six months increased Medicaid payments to the states. That would free money for states to meet other budget priorities, including keeping more than 150,000 police officers and other public workers on the payroll.
Some three-fifths of states already have factored in the federal money in drawing up their budgets for this fiscal year. The National Governors Association, in a letter to congressional leaders, said the states' estimated budget shortfall for the 2010-12 period is $116 billion, and the extended Medicaid payments are "the best way to help states bridge the gap between their worst fiscal year and the beginning of recovery."
Not all governors were on board. Mississippi Republican Haley Barbour said his state would have to rewrite its budget and would have to spend $50 million to $100 million to get its additional $98 million in education grants.
The $26 billion package is small compared with previous efforts to right the flailing economy through federal spending. But with the election approaching, political stakes were high.
GOP: 'Enough is enough'
"Teachers, nurses and cops should not be used as pawns in a cynical political game" resulting from "the Democratic majority's failure to govern responsibly," said Republican Rep. David Dreier, who represents Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.
"Where do the bailouts end?" asked Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio. "Are we going to bail out states next year and the year after that, too? At some point we've got to say, 'Enough is enough.' "
But Democratic Rep. Jay Inslee said his state of Washington would get funds to keep 3,000 teachers. Republicans, he said, "think those billions of dollars for those corporate loopholes is simply more important than almost 3,000 teachers and classrooms in the state of Washington."
Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., said Republicans ignore the fact that the law would not add to the federal deficit. "They want to do everything in their power to make certain that President Obama can't get this country going again. I think in November they are going to find it was a dumb policy."
The means of paying for the bill, a result of difficult negotiations in the Senate, were contentious.
Republicans objected to raising $10 billion by increasing taxes on some U.S.-based multinational companies. Advocates for the poor protested a provision to accelerate the phasing out of an increase in food stamp payments implemented in last year's recovery bill. Under the measure, payments would return to pre-stimulus rates in 2014, saving almost $12 billion.
James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, said that would be cutting benefits for 40 million people now receiving food stamps. "Those families will be hungrier and less able to buy healthy diets," he said.
Weill's group estimated that a family of four that may receive about $464 a month in food stamps stood to lose about $59.
Finding other ways to pay
Democrats gave assurances that they would look for other ways to pay for the law before the payment cuts go into effect in four years.
"The cutbacks in food stamps in the bill are plain wrong," said House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, D-Wis.
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Gerald McEntee rejected GOP arguments that the Democrats' primary purpose with the legislation was to reward their friends in organized labor. "To the American people, it's tremendously important and will give a little lift to the economy," he said of the legislation.