Saturday, February 7, 2009

Lawmakers reach tentative stimulus agreement

U.S. senators debated late into the night Friday on a massive economic-recovery package, after a coalition of Democrats and some Republicans reached a compromise that trimmed billions in spending from an earlier version.

Close to midnight Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told his colleagues that debate would continue on Saturday and go into Monday. Reid said a vote could come on Tuesday on the plan, which is championed by President Barack Obama as a tonic for a badly battered economy.

The movement came after days of private meetings between centrist Democrats and Republicans -- who felt the price tag on the Senate's nearly $900 billion version of the package was too much.

"There is a winner tonight," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut and one of the moderates whose support was crucial in efforts to corral enough votes for the plan. "It's the American people and they deserve it."

Senators had trimmed the plan to $827 billion in tax cuts and spending on infrastructure, housing and other programs that would create or save jobs.

"We trimmed the fat, fried the bacon and milked the sacred cows," said Sen. Ben Nelson, a Democrat, as debate began.

According to several senators, the revised version of the plan axed money for school construction and nearly $90 million for fighting pandemic flu, among other things.

The remaining spending includes more than $76 billion for education -- including college Pell grants and help for states struggling to pay for their schools -- $43 billion in transportation infrastructure and more than $3 billion for job training, according to the office of a senator involved in negotiations.

Tax cuts include incentives for small businesses, a one-year fix of the unpopular alternative-minimum tax and tax cuts for low-and-middle-income families, said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who was the most prominent Republican negotiator in the bipartisan talks.

"Our country faces a grave economic crisis and the American people want us to work together," she said. "They don't want to see us dividing along partisan lines on the most serious crisis facing our country."

Putting more pressure on senators to act was news Friday that employers slashed another 598,000 jobs off U.S. payrolls in January, pushing the unemployment rate to 7.6 percent.

"On the day when we learned 3.6 million people have lost their jobs since this recession began, we are pleased the process is moving forward and we are closer to getting Americans a plan to create millions of jobs and get people back to work," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

All or nearly all Democrats are expected to support the package. But 60 votes are needed in the 100-member Senate to bring the issue up for a vote.

There are 56 Democrats in the Senate and two independents who caucus with them. Results from Minnesota's senate election -- in which Democrat Al Franken appears to hold a 200-vote lead -- have not been certified amid court challenges.

Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy, of Massachusetts, was expected to be at the Capitol to vote on the plan, Capitol Hill sources said. Kennedy, who has been diagnosed with brain cancer, has not been on the Senate floor since collapsing during a luncheon on Inauguration Day.

"I always need Senator Kennedy," Reid said when asked if the vote needed to be held off until the liberal icon could be present.

The Senate began considering amendments to the plan shortly before 10 p.m. Friday.

While Democrats appeared to believe they had enough Republican support to push the compromise plan through, most GOP members still were speaking out against the plan -- saying spending is not the answer to cure economic woes.

"This is not bipartisan," said Sen. John McCain, who lost the 2008 election to Obama. "If this legislation is passed, it'll be a very bad day for America."

Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell compared the plan to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "New Deal" public works program -- which he said did not help the nation out of the Great Depression.

"We're talking about an extraordinarily large amount of money, and a crushing debt for our grandchildren," said McConnell of Kentucky. "Now, if most Republicans were convinced that this would work, there might be a greater willingness to support it. But all the historical evidence suggests that it's highly unlikely to work."

If the package passes the Senate, yet another compromise -- between the House and Senate versions -- must be hammered out before the legislation is sent to Obama to sign. Obama has said he would like to sign the stimulus by Presidents' Day on February 16.

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