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A Horse and Pony Show

"Republicans have tried to improve this bill," Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the Republican leader, said as he kicked off the day's debate. "Democrats have rejected these efforts."

Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) held a copy of the bill in the air. "If you believe this is a good process to spend $800 billion, we're on different planets," he said.

"I find it really rather amazing that the senator is holding up a bill," said Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "That's theatrics."

Boxer tried to interrupt the Republican again, but Graham refused. "No -- it's my time," he said. "I'm here to point out the fact that it is not bipartisanship."

That hardly needed pointing out. But Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) didn't mind beating a dead horse. "To have as little support thus far as we're getting from the Republican side of the aisle shows how out of touch, frankly, my colleagues are."

While the show horses traded insults on the floor, the dealmakers stepped out of their horse-trading session to give a progress report. Nelson claimed that Democratic leaders "recognize that we have the opportunity to bring about bipartisan support of this."

Oh? Minutes later, Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), meeting with reporters on the first floor of the Capitol, declared that efforts to cut the cost of the package "are lopping off jobs."

Schumer joined in the disparagement. "We'd rather pass a good bill with 65 votes than a bill that doesn't work with 80 votes," he said. "We are not just going to make this bill ineffective for the sake of winning people who are . . . not listening to the election."

When they weren't condemning the bipartisan effort, the men spent the balance of the news conference condemning the Republicans.

"They're carping on trifles," Durbin said.

"It takes two to tango, and the Republicans aren't dancing," Schumer submitted.

"We believe that we can find two Republicans of goodwill who are going to do the right thing for the country," Reid said. Namely, vote for the Democrats' plan.

Back on the floor, Republicans engaged in their own horseplay. Tom Coburn (Okla.) threatened to hold up proceedings until "the next 15 amendments that I've got have a scheduled time to be brought up so the American people can hear of all the stinky stuff that's in this bill."

While the show horses strutted, the workhorses in the Dirksen building were coming into the homestretch. "We're not there yet, but that doesn't mean we're not going to get there," Nelson said, threatening to vote against his Democratic leaders.

"This group is really prepared to take some political heat to get the job done," Lieberman added.

"I'd say to the majority leader that his success depends on the success of this group," Collins warned.

For a brief but happy moment, the workhorses held the whip hand.

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