A stimulating Senate

It's looking all but certain that Congress will pass an economic stimulus bill before mid-February, which isn't necessarily good news; it's questionable whether handing taxpayers a few hundred bucks each would really jolt a sluggish economy, yet there's no doubt at all that it would increase an already scary national debt. Still, some stimuli are more appealing than others, and if we must have a bill, the Senate has a better plan than the House.

President Bush and House leaders are pleased with the compromise they worked out last week, which calls for about $150 billion in tax rebates and incentives. They're less thrilled with the package subsequently approved by the Senate Finance Committee, which would cost more (how much is a subject of debate), aid the poor and boost the clean-technology industry. That plan, drafted by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), is expected to come to the Senate floor on Wednesday.

The Senate’s plan extends unemployment insurance by an additional 13 weeks, provides rebate checks to about 20 million seniors living on Social Security and about 250,000 disabled veterans (neither group would get a penny under the House version), and expands home-heating subsidies. Jobless people and those on fixed incomes are much more likely to spend their rebate checks quickly than those in the middle class, so if the goal is to stimulate spending, this is precisely the population Congress should be targeting.

The Senate also addresses one of the biggest failings of last year's energy bill. Wind and solar power installations are growing at a sizzling pace, but that growth is fueled by production tax credits that expire at the end of the year. An extension was stripped from the energy bill because of an unrelated dispute over taxing oil companies. The credits must be extended as quickly as possible because investors won't pump money into clean power if there's a danger of losing their tax incentives. Renewable energy reduces reliance on foreign oil while cutting greenhouse gases and other pollutants; green technology is also an extremely promising growth industry that could help make up for the loss of manufacturing jobs.

The Senate vote has been delayed until Wednesday, mainly so that the two Democratic senators still in the presidential race, Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, will have a chance to return to Washington after today's Super Tuesday primaries in order to weigh in (both are expected to support the Baucus plan). That would put the count of those expected to vote in favor at either 58 or 59, according to lobbyists -- just shy of the 60 needed to avoid a filibuster. Which means the plan's success or failure could depend on one man, who has kept mum about his stance: Republican candidate John McCain of Arizona.

McCain has made much during the campaign about his determination to combat global warming. If he's the man of conviction he claims to be, he should return to Washington and back the Baucus bill.

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