By Paul Kane and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 6, 2009
A bipartisan coalition of senators withheld support for President Obama's economic recovery package yesterday, leaving the scope and timing of his first major initiative in doubt as they sought to cut more than $100 billion from the legislation.
Despite growing concerns from Republicans and Democrats about the cost of the plan, senators did not reach agreement on which programs to trim. Instead, as the chamber has debated the bill this week, its cost has grown by almost $40 billion, with the tab now at more than $920 billion.
Senate leaders had hoped to vote on the measure yesterday, but after a series of meetings among nearly 20 senators did not yield a deal, the negotiators agreed to continue talking.
Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said that he would allow the centrist, bipartisan group to continue working and that, if it reaches consensus, he will schedule a vote for today on final legislation. If that fails, he will call for a rare Sunday session for a key procedural vote that would require 60 votes for passage.
Senate approval would lead to a House-Senate conference next week, when congressional leaders would try to work out differences, with the goal of sending a compromise bill to Obama's desk before Presidents' Day, Feb. 16.
But the fate of Obama's stimulus plan, designed to stem the nation's recession by saving more than 3 million jobs, remains unclear. Despite the president's personal lobbying campaign, the number of Republicans committed to working in the bipartisan group appeared to be shrinking as the day went on, leaving congressional Democrats a few votes shy of the 60 they need.
"It's very difficult, because everyone has certain pet programs in this bill," said Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), the leader of the Republican faction in the bipartisan group. "We're trying to focus it on spending that truly helps stimulate the economy. People have different views on whether or not a program meets that test."
Collins is one of three Senate Republicans whom Obama hosted at the White House this week for one-on-one sessions in an attempt to win their support. She told reporters yesterday that he agreed to her effort to reduce the overall cost of the package to $800 billion. That would require dramatic reductions in funding for popular items such as school construction and special education.
"Our original figure was roughly in the 800 range," Obama told reporters aboard Air Force One yesterday. "There have been some changes to our framework both in the House and in the Senate, but that's, I think, the scale that we need to deliver for the American people."
Obama made the case for the stimulus plan at a meeting with Energy Department employees, then flew to Williamsburg to try to shore up support among House Democrats gathered there for their annual retreat.
Some House Democrats have become concerned with efforts in the Senate to remove as much as $100 billion from the legislation they approved last week. But a critical group of fiscally conservative House Democrats announced their support for the push, led by Collins and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), to pare the measure.
The House approved an $819 billion package last week, but the Senate has added more than $100 billion in tax cuts to its version of the legislation, which started at about the same figure as the House measure. Efforts to reduce the cost of the Senate bill are not focused on those tax cuts, but on parts of the more than $550 billion in spending that House and Senate Democratic leaders originally sought.
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.
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.
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.