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House passes stimulus bill; now for the great Senate debate

Obama invites GOP ideas for the largest spending bill in US history.

By Staff writer / January 29, 2009

On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D) of California shared a laugh with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland during a news conference Wednesday to discuss stimulus legislation.

Susan Walsh/AP

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Washington

With the biggest spending bill in American history on the line, the US Senate is gearing up for a debate for the ages.

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With Republicans at 41 in the 100-member Senate – precisely the number they need to block legislation with a filibuster – Democrats could muscle the bill over the line by breaking off just one or two Republican votes.

Instead, President Obama is putting on a full-court press for a bigger, bipartisan vote to signal change in Washington. That means a more open process, including a full debate.

“I hope I communicated a sincere desire to get good ideas from everybody,” said Mr. Obama, after meeting separately with House and Senate Republicans on Tuesday.

“My attitude is, this is the first major piece of legislation we’ve worked on and that over time, some of these habits of consultation and mutual respect will take over, but old habits die hard.”

In contrast to the House, where Republicans complain that the $819 billion economic recovery package has been drafted without their input, the Senate is ramping up for a more open process. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed on Wednesday by a vote of 244 to 188, with no Republican support. Eleven Democrats voted with 177 Republicans to oppose the bill. [Editor's note: The original version understated the number of Democrats who opposed the bill.]

In response to Senate GOP concerns, the president urged cutting some of the more controversial provisions, including $200 million to resod the National Mall and increased payments for contraceptives in Medicare.

On Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee added a $70 billion bipartisan provision to the bill to prevent the alternative minimum tax from affecting middle-class families – a priority for the top Republican on the panel, Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa.

That and other provisions in the Senate version of the bill bring the cost of the stimulus bill near $900 billion. In addition, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that borrowing to pay for the plan will add $347 billion in interest costs.

In a sharp break with practice over the last two years, Senate Democratic leaders are offering the minority opportunities to amend bills on the floor.

“If we’re going to move as quickly as the timelines suggests [on a stimulus bill], we need to get a bill that enjoys broad bipartisan support,” says Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate majority leader Harry Reid. “If not, it’s going to be bogged down by procedural motions that are going to stall progress.”

What Democrats hope to avoid is one of those arcane, procedural slugfests that produce endless quorum calls, but no votes on substance.
Even Republicans who expect to oppose the final bill want next week’s debate to be on the issues.