Senators in Both Parties Call For Big Cuts in Stimulus Bill
Vote Delayed as Price of Obama Plan Passes $920 Billion
Friday, February 6, 2009; Page A01
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.