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Senate Lacks Votes to Pass Stimulus

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, talks to the media about the stimulus bill and the state of the economy.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, talks to the media about the stimulus bill and the state of the economy. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo

The medical research measure, aimed at developing uniform treatment protocols, is an Obama priority and part of the foundation he is trying to build for health-care reform.

"We have the blessing of leadership to do a good deal of this," Nelson said. But he conceded the difficulty of finding middle ground, with scores of provisions potentially up for review. "It's a little bit of a bookkeeping nightmare," he said.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), a moderate who has been considered the most likely GOP vote in favor of the plan, said yesterday that she cannot support it until items that would not do enough to stimulate the economy or create jobs are dropped.

"They should scrub it," said Snowe, who voted for the tax-relief portion in the Senate Finance Committee last week. She said many of the provisions were jammed into the legislation by members of the Appropriations Committee who were "trying to short-circuit the normal legislative process."

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said the centrist group led by Nelson and Collins would target programs that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated would not spend their funding quickly. He said the list includes a number of proposals that will spend only about 10 percent of their funding in the next 18 months. "These become immediate candidates for review," Conrad said of the provisions.

Some Republicans in the group are seeking a much broader rewrite of the legislation, and they want Obama to lead the effort. "Get us all in a room. That's what you do with a major piece of legislation," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), who supports an alternative drafted by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would cost $445 billion.

Graham said he could back something between the McCain bill and the House bill. Although some Republicans would prefer to shelve the measure temporarily, hoping that spending demand will cool, other GOP lawmakers would prefer to stay on schedule and find common ground. "There's sort of political chaos right now," he conceded.

The momentum to cut spending became apparent in votes on several amendments. First, the Senate fell two votes shy of the 60-vote threshold needed yesterday to add $25 billion for highway projects and transit programs.

Then, on a 52 to 45 vote, the chamber stripped $246 million in tax breaks for Hollywood production companies, a measure offered by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the Senate's self-appointed watchdog on federal spending. Coburn, who almost always loses his quixotic efforts to cut funding, appeared jubilant -- if somewhat surprised -- by his unexpected victory.

"This is a gift," he said of the Hollywood provision. "It's not going to stimulate the economy at all."

Later, the Senate turned away legislation to reduce the tax rate on multinational corporations that are returning earnings from overseas, as opponents argued that it was a giveaway to industry. But some new spending programs proved too politically attractive to the Senate. In a 71 to 26 vote, the Senate approved a new incentive for car buyers, at an estimated cost of $11 billion over 10 years. According to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), the amendment's sponsor, buyers could deduct the cost of sales tax for new cars purchased between last Nov. 12 and Dec. 31, 2009. Individuals with incomes of up to $125,000 would qualify.

And the chamber ended the night by unanimously accepting an additional $6.5 billion for research at the National Institutes of Health, pushing the cost of the Senate legislation -- for now -- to more than $900 billion.

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