President Obama's first major piece of legislation appears to have broken through a nearly solid Republican barrier in the U.S. Senate. Friday night, some GOP senators struck a compromise with moderate Democrats on Obama's massive economic stimulus bill.
The deal, backing a scaled-down package of about $780 billion, means there are now enough votes in the Senate for that bill to move forward to a vote on Tuesday.
All week long, Senate Democrats had been in a bind. They had an economic stimulus bill costing $885 billion. Even though they had agreed to some Republican amendments adding tens of billions of dollars in tax cuts to it, they still had no commitments from any Republicans to actually vote for the bill. And they needed at least two of them to attain the 60 votes required to pass this sort of measure.
So Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) encouraged a gang of moderate Democrats to draft a slimmed-down version of the stimulus with some moderate Republicans. Friday night, that gang reached a deal, and Reid heaped praise on them:
"I've learned a lot the last few days, by people coming in good faith saying what is in here should not be in here. And on a few occasions, in listening to what was propounded by those who have come up with this bipartisan agreement, we had to swallow real hard," Reid said.
Still, there was no vote Friday night to pass the stimulus bill. Louisiana Republican David Vitter, a fierce opponent of that package, made clear his intention to put off such a vote:
"I'm very eager to understand all of the details of this proposal, and I'll be doing that by getting a copy of the proposal and digesting it over a reasonable period of time, over the weekend, since it is a trillion-dollar proposal," he said.
Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, who helped lead the compromise effort, said the actual price of the Senate stimulus had dropped to $780 billion.
"The savings to the American people, to the taxpayers, is a $110 billion — hardly the trillion dollars that was just mentioned," Nelson said.
About a fifth of what was pared from the bill in the compromise came from tax cuts; the rest was from spending. Maine Republican Susan Collins, the Senate compromise group's other leader, said this should not be a debate about Republicans and Democrats; it should be about getting the country back on track.
"The American people want us to work together. They don't want to see us dividing along partisan lines on the most serious crisis facing our country," Collins said.
Leading the Republicans' opposition to Obama's stimulus plan was the man who lost to him in November, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
"This is not bipartisan. This is two Republican senators that decided to join after meetings behind doors from which almost all of the rest of us were not present," McCain said.
And he had a dire warning for his colleagues: "If this legislation is passed, it'll be a very bad day for America."
Far less caustic but equally negative was the Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
"I will not be in a position to recommend support for this product as it has developed," he said.
But those Republicans' votes won't be needed for the stimulus to pass, as long as the two or three who've shown support for the compromise hold firm.