Federal aid package clears Senate cloture vote

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WASHINGTON -- A package of federal aid to states that would partially plug a hole in Pennsylvania's budget and prevent thousands of layoffs passed its most difficult hurdle this morning by clearing a Senate cloture vote.

The 61-38 tally barely topped the 60-vote threshold to break a Republican filibuster, with Maine Republicans Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe joining a united Democratic caucus to back the $26.1 billion package of Medicaid reimbursements and education funding.

In the state budget signed in June, Gov. Ed Rendell and the Legislature had counted on $850 million in Medicaid funding, but will have to settle for about $600 million. According to the Department of Education, the state will receive about $387 million for school districts to use to avoid teacher layoffs -- but it was unclear what impact that would have on the state budget, as Mr. Rendell said this week that much of that money was specifically earmarked.

The bill still must come up for a final vote in the Senate and must be approved by the House of Representatives, but this morning's vote was the key one. It signals to Harrisburg -- and cash-strapped state capitals across the nation -- that the money is almost assuredly on the way.

Without the funding, Mr. Rendell said Tuesday, the state would have been forced to lay off 12,000 workers.

The FMAP funding had been beaten back in various forms by deficit-weary Republicans and centrist Democrats, but Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., crafted a package this week that offset the spending with cuts in other areas and a tax increase on multinational corporations. The bill would, in fact, reduce the deficit by $1.4 billion over the next decade according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Still, during floor debate this morning, Republicans attacked the measure as a bailout to states and payoff to teachers' unions.

"States are becoming completely dependent on us," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "I would ask my friends: When will it end?"

Democrats, meanwhile, cast the spending package as vital to the economic recovery and helping state governments in a serious bind.

"We can't afford to kick [states] while they are down by denying them the FMAP and teacher funding," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. "The bill directly injects money into our economy, and the best part about it is it saves jobs without adding a dime to the deficit."

Final passage in the Senate for the bill is expected Thursday, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced this afternoon that she would take the unusual step of calling the House back into session early next week to vote on the spending package -- hastening the funding's arrival in state coffers. The House recessed last week for its usual summer break and had not been due back .C. until after Labor Day.

Daniel Malloy: dmalloy@post-gazette.com or 202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC.


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