House passes stimulus bill; now for the great Senate debate

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

Susan Walsh/AP
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.

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

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.

Democrats may have the votes to succeed, but we have a moral responsibility as a loyal opposition to express our honest concerns,” says Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama. “This is a question of what direction America is going to take: Will we continue this spasm of spending the likes of which we’ve never seen before or will we show more restraint?”

At issue for Republicans is whether Democrats will use the nation’s current economic woes as cover for a permanent expansion of government.

Appealing directly to the new president, GOP lawmakers are urging the White House to enhance tax cuts and do more to solve the housing crisis, including providing that people facing foreclosure can refinance their homes at a 4 percent mortgage rate. They also call for zeroing out social spending that they say will not deliver quick stimulus to the economy.

Claiming as their watchword the phrase used by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the last Congress, Republicans say that any stimulus must be “timely, targeted, and temporary.”

“We’re going to continue to try to encourage the majority here in the Congress to incorporate a number of our ideas,” said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky at a briefing on Tuesday.

“I’m pleased with the way the Senate has been operating on the floor, pleased that we’re getting amendments offered, laid down, and voted on. And my assumption is that that’s the way we’re going to operate the rest of this Congress,” he added.

In the end, the outcome in the Senate will likely turn on a few moderate Republican votes. Although moderate GOP ranks were diminished in 2008 elections, they still include Senator Grassley and Maine Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

“I’m not sure that we’ve yet achieved the right balance, the right mix between tax relief and spending programs,” said Senator Collins after a Senate GOP meeting with Obama on Tuesday.

“I’m also concerned that some of the provisions in the bill appear to be worthwhile programs but really have nothing to do with creating or preserving jobs or helping to turn the economy around,” she said.

But across the board, Republicans are praising the new president for contributing to a change in tone on Capitol Hill, including the prospect of an open debate.

“There may be a kind of meta-strategy here: That simply by lowering the volume of acrimony, the president will probably get enough Republican votes to get it through the Senate,” says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

“Just by reducing the level of harshness, I think Obama feels that he can change the atmosphere of debate in Washington,” Mr. Baker says. “As long as he gets it through with even token Republican support, I think he can point to a better atmosphere in the future.”

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