WASHINGTON — The numbers have changed, but the equation is the same: The middle still matters.
As Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate struggled to secure votes for President Obama's economic stimulus package Thursday, they turned to a group of moderates from both parties who were trying to negotiate a bill that could pass with a modicum of bipartisan support.
Although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had insisted throughout the day that he had the 60 votes needed to pass the bill over Republican objections, many senators said they doubted that was true.
And indeed, by Thursday evening, Reid took to the Senate floor to admit as much, telling his colleagues that the outcome lay in the hands of those Republicans and Democrats trying to strike a deal, and that he hoped to have one by this morning. He did not rule out voting during the night.
"There are a number of senators working in good faith to try to come up with a proposal that will pick up a number of Republican votes," Reid said, adding that at least eight of them are Republicans.
"As I have indicated to each of those senators individually, I would be happy to take a look at this … if it's in keeping with what I believe everyone is trying to do — that is, to improve this legislation."
Senate Democrats still hope to pass the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act this week, so they can begin the task of reconciling their version — which includes spending and tax cuts worth $990 billion — with the $819 billion version that passed the U.S. House last week.
Reid's predicament shows that even though Democrats have greatly expanded their majority in the past two elections, the structure and nature of the Senate still puts the balance of power squarely in the middle.
"I would say to the majority leader his success depends on the success of this group," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who along with Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., was leading negotiations among at least 15 senators Thursday.
Democrats claim 58 Senate seats, although Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts has brain cancer and is out this week. In order to avoid a filibuster and pass the bill, that means every Democrat must vote aye, along with three Republicans.
But Nelson expressed concerns about the bill's size and scope, saying Thursday he would have a "hard time voting for the bill as it now stands." So have the moderate Republicans most likely to support the package, including Collins and Sen. Olympia Snowe, also of Maine.
Even though the Senate has adopted several meaty Republican amendments providing tax breaks and cutting spending, GOP members generally still want less spending and more tax cuts. Some centrist Democrats have questioned the whopping price tag and some of the programs it funds.
Nelson, Collins and their cadre, including Mel Martinez, R-Fla., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and others, held several closed-door meetings Thursday as they tried to tweak the package, but participants said a deal was proving elusive.
Although most agreed the Senate should reduce the overall cost of the package by $50 billion to $100 billion, they were having a hard time agreeing where to cut.
"We're looking for the sweet spot," Sen. Joe Lieberman said after an hour-and-a-half-long, closed door session with the others. "If we go too far … we're going to lose people who are already committed to this package." Reid and other Democratic leaders contend the package must include billions of dollars in government spending, coupled with tax cuts, to help create jobs, and that reducing the size of the bill would reduce its effectiveness.
Obama said Thursday he believed $800 billion was a reasonable figure. While that wouldn't melt Republican opposition in the Senate, it could help win over enough members to pass.
During remarks at the Energy Department, Obama expressed impatience with the continued Republican insistence on more tax cuts.
"The time for talk is over," Obama said. "The time for action is now, because we know that if we do not act, a bad situation will become dramatically worse."
Between votes Thursday evening on some of the more than three dozen amendments that have been offered to the stimulus package, Martinez said he's been immersed in negotiations all day, but "it's not going so well."
"Essentially, right now, I don't think we'll be able to come to a deal," Martinez said.
As for any attempt by Reid to push something through without major changes, he added, "I don't know how he gets 60."
The lack of a formal compromise wouldn't necessarily spell doom for the package, however. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said Reid could try to wrangle the votes to pass the bill by promising to help change the measure during negotiations among the House, Senate and White House, before the final bill is approved by Congress and sent to Obama for his signature.
"There are a group of us, it's no secret, that are not happy with package," Conrad said. "I've certainly seen that done in the past."
Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577.