In what could be a crushing blow to the Obama administration right from the start, Senate Democratic leaders conceded they do not have the votes to pass the Stimulus Bill as written.
In an effort to seek republican support, they will attempt to remove provisions that do not provide an immediate boost to the economy. President Obama and the Democatically controlled Congress made the stimulus bill a central part of their new mandate.
What started as an estimated $300 billion proposition has ballooned to over $900 billion, making Republicans resolute in their opposition to what they view as runaway and unncessary spending in th4e legistation. It has also created unease among moderate Demcrats.
The Senate's first vote on a stimulus amendment, a failed effort yesterday to add more infrastructure spending to the package, signaled the change in course.
Extensive Senate revisions would force lawmakers to work at a frantic pace to meet a self-imposed Feb. 13 deadline for completing a compromise bill with the House, which passed an $819 billion version last week. Obama reiterated his call for urgent action in a meeting Monday night with Democratic leaders and by letter yesterday to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
According to Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill) "We're trying to find a way to reach 60" votes, "A number of Democrats have said they want to see changes to the bill before they can vote for it."
What Senate leaders cannot predict is which provisions will stay in and which will fall out. It also remains unclear whether Democrats are willing to tamper with measures that are considered high priorities for Obama, but that tackle longer-term challenges such as health-care reform and alternative energy development, rather than providing the quick jolt of expanded unemployment and food-stamp benefits and individual tax relief.
The most ambitious effort to cut the bill is being led by Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), moderates in their parties who share a dislike of the current version. Collins is scheduled to visit Obama at the White House this afternoon. "I'm going to go to him with a list" of suggested deletions, she said.
Nelson said he and Collins have agreed to "tens of billions" in cuts, although he said he is skeptical that the effort will reach Collins's target of $200 billion in reductions. The pair has counted up to 20 allies in their effort, with more Democrats than Republicans at this point.
Among the items that the Collins-Nelson initiative is targeting: $1.1 billion for comparative medical research, $350 million for Agriculture Department computers, $75 million to discourage smoking, $20 million in Interior Department funding, $400 million for HIV screening and $650 million for wildlife management.
The medical research measure, aimed at developing uniform treatment protocols, is an Obama priority and part of the foundation he is trying to build for health-care reform.
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), a moderate who has been considered the most likely GOP vote in favor of the plan, said yesterday that she cannot support it until items that would not do enough to stimulate the economy or create jobs are dropped.
"They should scrub it," said Snowe, who voted for the tax-relief portion in the Senate Finance Committee last week. She said many of the provisions were jammed into the legislation by members of the Appropriations Committee who were "trying to short-circuit the normal legislative process."
The momentum to cut spending became apparent in votes on several amendments. First, the Senate fell two votes shy of the 60-vote threshold needed yesterday to add $25 billion for highway projects and transit programs.
Then, on a 52 to 45 vote, the chamber stripped $246 million in tax breaks for Hollywood production companies, a measure offered by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the Senate's self-appointed watchdog on federal spending. Coburn, who almost always loses his quixotic efforts to cut funding, appeared jubilant — if somewhat surprised — by his unexpected victory.
"This is a gift," he said of the Hollywood provision. "It's not going to stimulate the economy at all."
Later, the Senate turned away legislation to reduce the tax rate on multinational corporations that are returning earnings from overseas, as opponents argued that it was a giveaway to industry. But some new spending programs proved too politically attractive to the Senate. In a 71 to 26 vote, the Senate approved a new incentive for car buyers, at an estimated cost of $11 billion over 10 years. According to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), the amendment's sponsor, buyers could deduct the cost of sales tax for new cars purchased between last Nov. 12 and Dec. 31, 2009. Individuals with incomes of up to $125,000 would qualify.
And the Senate ended the night by unanimously accepting an additional $6.5 billion for research at the National Institutes of Health, pushing the cost of the Senate legislation — for now — to more than $900 billion.