WASHINGTON — With the House of Representatives and Senate giving final approval to the massive stimulus bill Friday, and President Obama prepared to sign it early next week, the question now is: Just how soon might Americans begin to feel its benefits, and when will they know whether it's working?
The scale of the legislation is so huge and its provisions so diverse that its effects could potentially be felt in almost every corner of American society -- from small businesses and major industries to individuals in their varied roles as workers, taxpayers and consumers.
Like a time-release capsule, the $787-billion plan will move into the nation's economic bloodstream in stages. A majority of Americans should see more money in their pockets quickly, as a result of tax cuts designed to reduce withholding and fatten take-home pay. Investments in science, basic research and the so-called green economy may not yield sizable benefits for years, even decades.
The Congressional Budget Office said the legislation would deliver its largest benefits to the nation's total gross domestic product by the end of this year, with the effect dropping some in 2010 and disappearing altogether by 2013.
The budget office said the bill would have its greatest effect in terms of increasing employment next year, when about 3.6 million jobs could be created. But the report added that the package could have a positive effect on employment for the next five years, perhaps leading to the creation of as many as 11.6 million jobs during that span.
House Republicans contend that the bill will produce only 3.46 million jobs, "500,000 fewer than President Obama promised," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
No Republicans voted for the bill in the House on Friday. The final vote was 246 to 183, with seven Democrats breaking ranks to vote with the GOP. In the Senate, the vote was 60 to 38, with three Republicans -- Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- voting for the package, just enough to ensure that the GOP could not block the bill with a filibuster.
The margin in the Senate was so tight that Democratic leaders kept the roll call open late Friday until Sen. Sherrod Brown could return to Washington briefly from his home state of Ohio, where memorial services are being held for his mother. Brown cast the 60th vote after arriving on a military jet.
Republicans heaped particular criticism on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). "It's a one-party bill," said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republican whip, after the bill passed in the House. "We weren't allowed to write one word of this bill."
During debate on the Senate floor, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) sounded the line many Democrats -- including Obama -- used to answer their critics. "What would they have us do?" he said. "They would have us do nothing."
The bill provides billions for infrastructure repair, school renovations, aid for cash-strapped states, and aid for the unemployed in the form of healthcare subsidies and extensions of unemployment benefits.
It also features a bevy of tax cuts designed to leave more money in the hands of businesses and individuals.
Here is what people can expect to see in the first wave of effects:
Workers who make less than $75,000 a year (or married couples who make $150,000 or less) will receive $400 tax credits in 2009 and 2010. Those who make more will receive reduced amounts. But instead of mailing out checks, as the Bush administration did with its stimulus plan last year, the government will withhold a little less -- leaving average workers with perhaps $8 extra per week.
Those sums were ridiculed by Republicans and others, who said the bill's benefits for taxpayers had been wildly inflated.
Still, "that cash has to go somewhere," said Clint Stretch, managing principal for tax policy in Washington with the consulting firm Deloitte. He said that it was a "pretty direct" form of stimulus and that "nobody has to do anything to get it."
Those out of work will see unemployment checks immediately increase by $25, up from the average benefit of $200 a week. And eligibility for benefits will last 46 weeks, up from 26 weeks. That money, too, will go to people who are most likely to spend it quickly.
Health insurance subsidies for the unemployed could also have a direct effect, but even with the federal help many may find it hard to afford continued coverage. Workers who lose their jobs must arrange with their employers to continue the coverage and must pay the premiums themselves -- a hefty outlay even with the government now picking up 65% of the cost for nine months for individuals earning up to $125,000 a year ($250,000 for couples).
First-time home buyers can also reap immediate benefits. In lieu of government cash, they can claim an $8,000 tax credit if they buy a home before the end of year.