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Bipartisan Group of Senators Seeks to Cut $100 Billion From Stimulus Bill

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President Barack Obama on Monday said that if Congress does not quickly pass an economic stimulus package the nation will slip into a crisis so deep that 'we may be unable to reverse' it. Video by AP

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When the centrist negotiations started Wednesday, Republican moderates hoped to lower the bill's total to $650 billion. But as the Senate cost climbed, that quickly appeared unattainable. By mid-morning yesterday, the goal for many in the group had settled at about $800 billion.

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Two sticking points for Republicans were funding for school construction and Head Start, both viewed as worthy programs but not ones that would provide a sufficient boost to the economy.

"I love schools. I love children," said Sen. Mel Martinez (Fla.), a GOP participant in the negotiations. But the measures "don't belong in this bill," he said.

Senate Republicans such as Martinez, George V. Voinovich (Ohio) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) appeared to dig in against a final figure as high as $800 billion. "Time is running short," Martinez said.

Nelson and Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.), another participant in the meetings, are among several Democrats who have not endorsed the original legislation because, they said, some of the programs would do little to create jobs. Still, top Democrats say that, ultimately, they are likely to support Obama.

Even if Reid were to get all 58 votes from his Democratic caucus, he acknowledged yesterday that he needs the votes of "two Republicans of goodwill."

The legislation could rest in the hands of Obama securing the votes of the two Maine senators -- Republicans Collins and Olympia J. Snowe -- and every Democratic vote, including that of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.). Kennedy, who has brain cancer, has not returned to the chamber since having a seizure during Obama's inaugural ceremonies more than two weeks ago.

Collins told reporters that she could not support an unaltered package, and said she would not risk sending the legislation to a conference with the House on the promise that negotiators would trim it at that point. "I think it's important we get a bipartisan compromise here in the Senate," she said.

Some items on the cutting board included $99 million in technology upgrades for the State Department's National Cyber Security Initiative, $200 million for benefits for Filipino veterans, $55 million for the Historic Preservation Fund, and $122 million for the Coast Guard to purchase new or renovated polar icebreakers.

But senators also debated whether to keep in the bill numerous big-ticket items that their colleagues had fought for. About $14 billion in Pell grant funding appeared to have survived, but some senators were targeting at least $10 billion in other education programs. Billions of dollars in energy efficiency incentives and state aid also were under review by the centrist group.

In a sign of the increasing Republican opposition to the legislation, GOP senators unanimously supported an alternative bill yesterday offered by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama's rival in last year's presidential election.

The $445 billion alternative failed, but McCain's allies said they opposed both the $920 billion plan and the centrists' effort to pare down that legislation, saying it was a closed-door meeting whose participants were not considering enough reductions in spending.

"There is no negotiation going on here. Nobody is negotiating. We are making this up as we go," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.


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