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Deal on stimulus bill squeaks through Senate, billions lighter

WASHINGTON — For Democrats smarting over how hard it has been to push the economic stimulus package through the Senate this week, let that be a lesson to them.

Despite complaints of Republican obstructionism, the week of frantic bargaining and unforeseen roadblocks that nearly derailed a deal on the stimulus bill was largely self-inflicted, thanks to early decisions by Democratic leaders to load the bill with questionable projects and easy targets for conservative critics.

Many Democrats had believed President Obama's popularity and the public's desire for an infusion of government cash into the economy would help them push the bill through Congress. That indeed happened in the House, where the Democratic majority overwhelmed Republican opposition.

But in the Senate, which is more evenly split, two weeks of Republican sniping and growing questions about the bill helped turn moderate Republicans and Democrats against it, leaving Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., without the 60 votes needed to clear the package until a compromise was reached Friday evening that cut the final cost by more than $100 billion.

"Some of the stuff they put in it made it too easy for Republicans to use to distract people," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who was among about 15 to 20 moderates trying to reach a compromise.

"It was little stuff, but it was the kind of stuff that allowed them to get on the offensive and forced us to go on the defensive."

Under the deal struck Friday night, the heart of the Senate bill is about $827 billion in government spending, entitlements and tax breaks designed to create jobs, give people money to spend to help business, and shore up the nation's infrastructure, from bridges to broadband. A vote to end debate on the measure is expected Sunday, with final passage next week.

A flurry of amendments had jacked the price tag on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to $920 billion and compromise seemed more slippery the higher it climbed. News on Friday that nearly 600,000 jobs were lost in January seemed to light a fire under the senators.

But ever since the package was unveiled two weeks ago, Republicans — as well as a few Democrats — had seized on certain projects that didn't seem helpful to putting people to work.

Democrats had used the bill to make up for lost time, stuffing it with spending for programs that had gotten short shrift during the Bush administration.

"It needs to be stimulative, and it doesn't need to include every funding of every program that George W. Bush underfunded for eight years," said Rep. Allen Boyd of Monticello, one of only 11 Democrats to vote against the stimulus bill in the House.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who was among moderates trying to reach a deal, said, "Every interest group has a special interest, and a lot of them are thinking that this is a moving train to get their purpose taken care of. But we have to limit this to take care of the economy."

Unfortunately for Democratic leaders, many of the bill's more questionable priorities made for easy targets on talk shows: Some $200 million to reseed the National Mall; $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, a favorite conservative whipping boy; nearly $250 million for Hollywood movie producers to buy films; $400 million for NASA climate research; and billions of dollars to fix federal buildings and schools, help low-income people buy digital TV converter boxes and improve government computer systems.

Many of these projects were for relatively small amounts of money, given the overall size of the bill, but Republicans hammered at them. Over the past two to three weeks, members of the House Republican Conference's "GOP Stimulus Response Team" have made roughly 100 appearances on TV and radio programs to blast the bill.

Republican senators have been equally aggressive with their criticism, and they blamed Democrats for what appears to be an upcoming vote largely along party lines.

Only three Republicans were involved in Friday night's deal, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and the two senators from Maine, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. All three are moderates, and the Republican leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, joined others in deriding the compromise as still too large and wide-ranging.

"I think it's a squandered opportunity for President Obama," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the GOP leadership.

It hasn't been completely one-sided, though. Senate Democrats accepted several meaty amendments adding tax cuts designed to attract Republicans, including $70 billion to prevent millions of middle-class Americans from having to pay the alternative minimum tax; about $12 billion for a $1,500 tax credit for buying a car; and $20 billion for a $15,000 tax credit for buying a home.

Democrats have also agreed to cut several programs that Republicans find objectionable, such as the funding for Hollywood producers and money for contraceptives for low-income women. The deal struck in the Senate Friday night will also cut funding for education, neighborhood revitalization, health care and other Democratic priorities.

Once the package passes the Senate, it must be reconciled with the $819-billion version that passed the House last week. Democrats in the House will not be happy with the Senate's changes, and the final package will likely change before it's sent to President Obama for his signature.

Meanwhile, Obama is launching his own offensive aimed at selling the package directly to the American people on his first trips outside Washington. Monday he'll advocate for the plan in Indiana, and on Tuesday he is scheduled to visit Fort Myers.

"It will all work out," Nelson said. "We're going into a deep economic spiral downward, and I don't know of any economist who does not believe we need an electric shock to get it started again."

Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

fast facts

Obama in Florida

President Obama is expected to visit Fort Myers Tuesday to pitch the stimulus proposal. In the past year, the unemployment rate in Fort Myers has jumped from 6 percent to 10 percent. Obama plans a similar event Monday in Elkhart, Ind. And he will talk about the plan on prime time TV that night.

Deal on stimulus bill squeaks through Senate, billions lighter 02/06/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 6, 2009 11:50pm]
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