Senate approves economic stimulus package, with IT funding included

The $838B measure now must be reconciled with a similar House bill

The U.S. Senate has approved an $838 billion economic stimulus package that includes money for broadband and health IT deployments and for an Internet-based smart electricity grid.

The Senate on Tuesday voted 61-37 to pass the legislation, pushed by U.S. President Barack Obama. Three Senate Republicans joined Democrats to pass the bill, after no Republicans voted for a House of Representatives version that passed Jan. 28.

House and Senate negotiators will now work out the differences in the two bills. The House version totaled $819 billion.

The Senate version of the bill, while larger overall, cut spending for a smart electricity grid and for health IT below levels approved in the House version.

The Senate bill includes $4.5 billion to improve the nation's electricity grid so that customers can measure their electricity use through Web sites and, in some cases, sell back extra energy. Supporters of a smart energy grid say that the information made available can help customers cut their energy costs.

The House version of the bill includes $11 billion for a smart grid.

The Senate bill also includes $3 billion to push forward adoption of health IT, including electronic health records. The House version of the bill includes $20 billion for health IT.

The Senate version of the bill includes $7.1 billion aimed at rolling out broadband to rural and other under-served areas, compared to $6 billion in the House version. Most of the money in the Senate package would go to grants for broadband providers; the House bill included a mix of grants and tax credits.

Some groups calling for a national broadband policy said they were disappointed, however, that the Senate spending for broadband was cut from more than $9 billion during negotiations in recent days. A group of 18 senators worked to cut the overall bill from about $900 billion.

"Of course we are disappointed, but we also realize that at $7 billion, it is still higher than the House version," said Wendy Wigen, a spokeswoman for Educause, a group promoting broadband in higher education. "We knew there would be a compromise number reached. We hope the number won’t go any lower as the bill enters conference."

Republicans in the Senate criticized the bill for adding to a federal budget deficit that grew over the past eight years under Republican President George Bush. They also questioned whether several provisions in the bill will create jobs and improve the economy.

The bill is an "orgy of spending," Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Monday. "This bill was written by appropriators, not economists."

But Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, noted that 3.6 million U.S. residents have lost jobs in the past year. The stimulus package is needed immediately to avoid greater economic problems, he added.

"The cost of inaction would be far higher than the cost of this bill," he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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