Bipartisan Deal Eases Way For Stimulus Bill in Senate

President Barack Obama will visit two cities hit hard by the economic downturn as he promotes his stimulus plan. Obama will visit Elkhart, Ind. and Ft. Myers, Fla. Video by AP
By Shailagh Murray and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 7, 2009

Against a backdrop of rising unemployment, Senate Democrats struck a hard-won deal yesterday with a handful of Republican moderates to scale back spending in a massive economic stimulus bill, virtually guaranteeing Senate passage of the legislation but also ensuring arduous final negotiations with the House.

The compromise represented a dramatic finale to a tumultuous and frustrating week for Democrats pushing the package, as Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) saw the limitations of an expanded majority and a band of GOP centrists came to appreciate the very high price they can extract for their votes on key measures.

The bipartisan deal was cut after two days of talks and would cut more than $100 billion from the $920 billion bill, dropping its cost to about $820 billion, if amendments added on the Senate floor are retained.

Most Republicans remained strongly opposed to the compromise bill, saying it was too costly and ineffective, and Democratic leaders were counting on just three GOP votes for the plan as of last night but hoped to expand the number before a final vote.

Moments after Reid announced the deal on the Senate floor, GOP lawmakers said that they will seek to delay a final vote through procedural objections, which could push debate to as late as Monday.

Senators worked late into last night on a time agreement to bring the bill to a vote. The pipeline was still clogged with amendments, many of them offered by conservative Republican senators, with little chance of passing. But Reid was determined to make sure the debate remained open and free-flowing, in keeping with the tone that President Obama urged.

But the likely passage of the legislation represents a significant victory for Obama, who has put his political capital on the line to relentlessly stress the immediate need for the bill, even as it swelled in cost and lost GOP support.

Obama endorsed the moderates' effort and brought its leaders -- Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) -- to the White House to discuss their proposed cuts. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel attended the final meetings in Reid's office last night to work out lingering differences. Before Emanuel arrived, Collins said, Democrats were advocating $63 billion in cuts. "Then Rahm got involved, and a much better proposal came forward," she said.

The goal of the bill is to save or create up to 4 million jobs over the next two years, helping to offset the loss of 3.6 million jobs since December 2007, when the nation began its descent into what economists predict will be the worst recession since the Great Depression. With businesses shedding jobs and watching profits plummet, and with the Federal Reserve having slashed interest rates effectively to zero, many economists say a huge injection of government spending is the best hope for easing the effects of the downturn.

Obama will head to Indiana and Florida next week to campaign for the quick reconciliation of the House and Senate versions, although given the cool reception that the Senate's additional cuts received from House Democratic leaders yesterday, Congress's self-imposed Feb. 13 deadline to send the bill to Obama's desk now appears a monumental challenge.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the proposed reductions "do violence to what we are trying to do for the future," especially on alternative energy and education, two areas Democrats believe were long neglected under President George W. Bush. "The cuts are very damaging," she told reporters at a House Democratic retreat in Williamsburg.

Pelosi also played down the need for Republican input. "Washington seems consumed by this process argument of bipartisanship," she said. The House's $819 billion stimulus package passed without a single Republican vote for it.

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