By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
With little margin for error, the Senate overcame a key parliamentary hurdle yesterday to move a massive economic stimulus bill one step closer to becoming law and set the stage for potentially tumultuous negotiations with House leaders over the final shape of the legislation.
On a 61 to 36 vote, the Senate cleared the path for a final vote today on its $838 billion bill that would provide money for a wide variety of purposes, including a $15,000 tax credit for home buyers and $3.4 billion in repairs to public parks, hoping that the two-year package of spending and tax cuts would provide a cushion in the ongoing economic recession that President Obama yesterday predicted would become a "deepening disaster" without the stimulus.
With just three Republicans -- Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- joining all 58 members of the Democratic caucus, the Senate barely cleared the 60-vote threshold to cut off the debate and force a final vote today. In a sign of the importance Democratic leaders were placing on yesterday's vote, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who had not been in the Capitol since having a seizure during Obama's inauguration festivities, was escorted to the chamber by colleagues to cast his aye vote. In anticipation of a vote last week, he had traveled from Florida, where he continues his battle with brain cancer. Kennedy, a prominent early supporter of Obama's presidential campaign, is expected to be on hand for today's vote as well.
Obama traveled to Indiana yesterday and then took to the airwaves for his first presidential news conference as part of his campaign to win support for the legislation. The Senate's vote came after marathon negotiating sessions late last week between top White House aides and GOP centrists, who reached a tentative deal Friday and moved the new president closer to a final victory on legislation considered to be a cornerstone of his agenda.
"I can say with complete confidence that endless delay or paralysis in Washington in the face of this crisis will only bring deepening disaster. I can tell you that doing nothing is not an option," Obama said at a campaign-style town hall forum in Elkhart, Ind.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said most Republicans cannot support such a large spending plan on top of the $700 billion financial rescue plan for banks approved last fall, as well as $400 billion that must be approved to keep most federal agencies running for the latter half of fiscal 2009 and an undetermined amount from the Federal Reserve to continue shoring up the financial system.
"It was too much to swallow," McConnell told reporters.
After full approval of the package today, the Senate will send its version of the legislation to a conference with the House, which approved its own $819 billion stimulus bill on Jan. 28 with no Republican votes. While the overall dollar amounts are similar in scope, the packages have pronounced differences. The Senate version, for instance, includes $110 billion more in tax cuts.
A report from the Congressional Budget Office, issued as the Senate was voting last evening, produced a new cost estimate for that chamber's legislation, increasing it from $827 billion to $838 billion. Almost all of the increase was due to an amendment, offered by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and accepted unanimously last week, that limits bonuses to the top 25 executives at firms and corporations that receive assistance from the $700 billion financial plan. The Dodd provision means that the Treasury will take in less tax revenue because of the slashed bonus structures, according to the CBO.
Staff from both chambers have begun discussing the differences between the two bills, but the principals have not been in the same room since the most dramatic changes were made. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) spoke by phone with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Saturday while Pelosi was leading a three-day retreat for her caucus in Williamsburg. Aides declined to detail the conversation, but it came a day after Pelosi suggested that the Senate cuts in spending, which Reid endorsed, would do "violence" to struggling families.
Pelosi and her leadership team have signaled their inclination to fight to restore some spending that the Senate stripped out. In particular, they hope to add money for a program that would help fund construction of or critical repairs to schools, which the Senate centrists opposed. The House version includes $14 billion for that program. The Senate deal also cut in half funding for state governments -- from $79 billion in the House down to $39 billion -- intended to stabilize their budgets and prevent layoffs.