By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Senate Democratic leaders conceded yesterday that they do not have the votes to pass the stimulus bill as currently written and said that to gain bipartisan support, they will seek to cut provisions that would not provide an immediate boost to the economy.
The legislation represents the first major test for President Obama and an expanded Democratic Congress, both of which have made economic recovery the cornerstone of their new political mandate. The stimulus package has now tripled from its post-election estimate of about $300 billion, and in recent days lawmakers in both parties have grown wary of the swelling cost.
Moderate Republicans are trying to trim the bill by as much as $200 billion, although Democrats working with those GOP senators have not agreed to a specific figure.
The Senate's first vote on a stimulus amendment, a failed effort yesterday to add more infrastructure spending to the package, signaled the change in course. For weeks, the measure has grown to meet a worsening economic crisis with the largest possible infusion of government cash. Despite warnings of dire consequences if Congress does not act boldly, Republicans have become resolute in their opposition to what they view as runaway and unnecessary spending in the legislation. And as the total in the Senate version climbs to $900 billion, unease also is stirring among moderate Democrats.
Extensive Senate revisions would force lawmakers to work at a frantic pace to meet a self-imposed Feb. 13 deadline for completing a compromise bill with the House, which passed an $819 billion version last week. Obama reiterated his call for urgent action in a meeting Monday night with Democratic leaders and by letter yesterday to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
For now, the Senate bill remains a work in progress. "We're trying to find a way to reach 60" votes, Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate's chief vote counter, told reporters. "A number of Democrats have said they want to see changes to the bill before they can vote for it."
Durbin predicted that "100 decisions" will be "made between now and when we deliver the bill to the president's desk."
To remove obstacles from the measure's path, Reid said numerous items could fall by the wayside. "The president, the Democratic leaders, the Republican leaders certainly have every intention of moving forward to getting everything out of the bill that causes heartburn to a significant number of senators," he told reporters yesterday.
What Senate leaders cannot predict is which provisions will stay in and which will fall out. It also remains unclear whether Democrats are willing to tamper with measures that are considered high priorities for Obama, but that tackle longer-term challenges such as health-care reform and alternative energy development, rather than providing the quick jolt of expanded unemployment and food-stamp benefits and individual tax relief.
The most ambitious effort to cut the bill is being led by Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), moderates in their parties who share a dislike of the current version. Collins is scheduled to visit Obama at the White House this afternoon. "I'm going to go to him with a list" of suggested deletions, she said.
Nelson said he and Collins have agreed to "tens of billions" in cuts, although he said he is skeptical that the effort will reach Collins's target of $200 billion in reductions. The pair has counted up to 20 allies in their effort, with more Democrats than Republicans at this point.
Among the items that the Collins-Nelson initiative is targeting: $1.1 billion for comparative medical research, $350 million for Agriculture Department computers, $75 million to discourage smoking, $20 million in Interior Department funding, $400 million for HIV screening and $650 million for wildlife management.
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.