Just 90 minutes after release of the worst unemployment data in 16 years, the US Senate convened to try to come to terms on a stimulus plan now costing up to $920 billion.
“Democrats and Republicans must decide today whether to work together to come up with a plan to join the president on this road to recovery,” said Senate majority leader Harry Reid, as he opened debate on Friday.
“I think we’re going to be able to work something out,” he added.
Facing strong Republican opposition to the size and scope of the bill, Senate Democratic leaders say the prospect of a big, bipartisan vote on this bill now is beyond reach.
“The idea that the president had, noble as it was, of 80 votes is a distant memory,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York at a midday briefing on Thursday. “The real test is whether this bill is going to work – and the key number is the number of jobs created, not the number of votes."
Too big, unfocused, GOP says
Senate GOP leaders, backed by most of the caucus, say the current version of the bill is too big and unfocused to succeed – and that it needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. They say that the president needs to layout his plans for fixing ongoing housing and credit crises before Congress commits to more than $1 trillion (including interest charges) for a stimulus
plan that may not work.
“We need to get a stimulus. But more importantly, we need to get it right,” he added.
Democrats need GOP votes
By leadership estimates, Democrats are three or four votes short of the 60 needed to pass this bill and avoid a Republican filibuster. They hope to find these votes in the ranks of moderate Republicans such as Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, who both voted for the bill as it came out of the Senate Finance and Appropriations committees, respectively.
Senator Collins and Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska have been leading intense, bipartisan negotiations this week to lower the bill's sticker price by culling projects deemed wasteful or insufficiently stimulative.
“This is the way you get something bipartisan, if it’s possible. We still think it’s possible,” said Senator Nelson after hours of negotiation with 16 other senators on Thursday.
Centrists eye trims
One point that unites negotiators, he says, is a skepticism of the view, cited by Democratic leaders, that any spending will stimulate the economy and that the key is to make sure that
spending is big enough. Centrists say that many of the items that came over in the House version of the bill look like member pet projects and should be cut.
“A lot of the criticism of what came out was that these pieces didn’t belong in stimulus. We’ve agreed with that assessment,” he adds.
Meanwhile, President Obama is using the bully pulpit to pressure the Senate to move quickly.
“I am sure that at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, members of the Senate are reading these same numbers this morning,” he said in comments to the Economic Recovery Advisory Board on Friday morning. Earlier, the Labor Department reported that the unemployment rate in January jumped to 7.6 percent and that the economy lost 598,000 jobs, the most in 34 years. (Click here for a look at job losses across the economy.)
“I hope they share my sense of urgency and draw the same, unmistakable conclusion: the situation could not be more serious, Mr. Obama said. "These numbers demand action. It is inexcusable and irresponsible to get bogged down in distraction and delay while millions of Americans are being put out of work. It is time for Congress to act.”