Democrats push to convert stopgap spending measure into mini-stimulus

Democrats have turned the latest stopgap spending measure to keep the federal government running into a mini-stimulus of sorts.

Appropriators included measures in the latest continuing resolution to provide relief to struggling homeowners, public housing tenants and small businesses.

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“If we don’t do them, then we’re not going to be stopping many home foreclosures in the worst-affected mortgage states and we will put a foot on the housing market just when it’s getting back on track,” said Rep. John Olver (D-Mass.), a senior appropriator.

Attaching the stimulus measures to the continuing resolution makes it more difficult for Republicans, who have been critical of the $787 billion stimulus passed in February, to oppose the provisions.

Lawmakers added the continuing resolution with the stimulus provisions during a conference on the $32.2 billion Interior and Environment spending bill, which passed both chambers.

Congress has yet to complete its work on all spending bills for fiscal 2010. The current continuing resolution expires on Oct. 31. Both chambers are expected to pass the latest stopgap this week, which would fund the federal government until Dec. 18.

One provision extends higher limits for federally backed home loans that were increased as part of the stimulus and are set to expire at the end of the year. The provision allows Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgages to be as large as $729,750 after December. The loan limits were scheduled to go down to their pre-stimulus levels of $625,500 in January.

Another provision provides up to $200,000 for public housing vouchers for approximately 10,000 families. Both housing moves were requested by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Democratic appropriators said.

The continuing resolution also provides approximately $17.2 million to guarantee Small Business Association (SBA) loans for firms having trouble getting credit from private lenders.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), the top Republican on the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, said that the extra money for loans would “directly bolster businesses’ bottom lines, helping to create jobs and kick-start the economy.”

The provisions, even as small as they are, reflect the push by Democratic leaders to provide recession relief with a series of measures instead of another big stimulus package. The economy is expected to emerge out of the recession this year, but economists and the White House expect the unemployment rate to remain around 10 percent deep into 2010.

Democrats have avoided proposing an additional stimulus package after the one passed in February has drawn criticism from Republicans. The GOP has argued that the stimulus hasn’t stopped the jobless rate from rising to almost 10 percent. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last week that Democrats won’t pass another big stimulus but do “have plans to stimulate the economy in the work that we are doing here.”

Those plans include an extension of unemployment benefits by 13 weeks for workers who have lost jobs in states with the highest unemployment rates. The House has passed the proposed extension, while the Senate is expected to vote this week to extend benefits by at least 14 weeks. The Senate bill would cost $2.4 billion.

Lawmakers from both parties are also proposing to extend an $8,000 first-time homebuyer’s tax credit into June of next year. The credit, part of the February stimulus, is set to expire this year. The extension would cost $16.7 billion and has support from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), who has sponsored the House’s unemployment benefits extension bill, said the relatively smaller measures in the continuing resolution were “stimulative” because they’re aimed at getting the economy moving again.

“Everything’s frozen,” he said. “Banks are basically balancing their balancing sheets. They’re not loaning.”

House Republicans criticized the move to attach any extra provisions to the continuing resolution. Rep. Jerry Lewis (Calif.), the top House GOP appropriator, argued for a “clean” continuing resolution and criticized the extra funding for housing vouchers, arguing that public housing authorities have spent too much.

This story was updated at 11:30 a.m. on Oct. 29.