- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Congressional leaders and the White House struck a tentative agreement to keep the price of the economic stimulus bill at about $789 billion, a figure that should preserve a few key Senate Republican votes needed for final passage of the package.

The closed-door talks lasted late into the night Tuesday and were set to resume Wednesday afternoon, as President Obama’s negotiators push to return about $16 billion for school construction projects cut from the Senate-passed bill.

Early reports indicated the White House abandoned hope for restoring up to $40 billion in aid to state government slashed from the Senate bill, which leaves about $39 billion to prop up state spending.

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To download a PDF chart comparing the stimulus plans from the House and Senate, click here.

TWT RELATED STORY: Struggle begins on stimulus bills

House Democrats also insist on adding in tens of billions of dollars for federal-building “green” makeovers, education for disabled children, health care and other programs removed in a Senate bargain to cut the price tag and win key Republican support.

They are striving to reconcile the Senate’s $838 billion bill and the House-passed $819 billion version by Mr. Obama’s weekend deadline, and the Democratic leaders vowed to keep lawmakers in Washington through next week’s planned Presidents Day recess if they don’t get the job done in time.

“Our bill produced more jobs, and we’re going to fight for those jobs,” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told reporters Tuesday shortly before entering the negotiations. “We’re there to fight for jobs. The Senate is not my responsibility.”

The Senate bill won passage Tuesday in a 61-37 vote with the backing of three centrist Republicans Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Susan M. Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, both of Maine whose support is indispensable for passing the final package and who don’t want to see the price budge.

Democrat Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a key broker of the compromise that passed the Senate bill by just one vote more than the 60 needed to thwart a filibuster, warned House Democrats against trying to force major changes.

“We haven’t said, ‘Take it or leave it.’ But what I would say is, this has been done very carefully,” he said. “It is a very fragile alliance over here and it will still take 60 votes to pass it.” Most Republicans oppose President Obama’s stimulus plan, saying it is rife with scattershot spending that will create permanent new government programs, won’t help the beleaguered U.S. economy and risks undercutting a recovery by driving up federal debt.

Mr. Obama, who met with Mrs. Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid prior to the talks to set parameters for the final package, said the massive spending is the country’s best hope for reversing the economic downturn.

“I’ve got the House to worry about. I’ve got the president to worry about. And I’ve got three Republicans that I’m concerned about,” Mr. Reid, Nevada Democrat, said at a Capitol Hill press conference. “So I’m not going to do any negotiating here.”

Although nominally carrying near-identical price tags, the two bills are worlds apart by Capitol Hill standards.

One major difference: The Senate bill would temporarily limit the bite of the alternative minimum tax for many middle-class taxpayers, at a cost of nearly $70 billion. The Senate also doubled a tax credit for homebuyers to $15,000, adding $35.5 billion to the bill in one of the few Republican victories in the Senate debate.

The House bill spends considerably more on aid to states and localities, much of it targeted for school construction and repair, and on an electronic medical records system, expanded child-tax credits and health insurance for the unemployed.

With a nearly 80-vote majority in the House, Mrs. Pelosi and House Democrats can push through the final spending bill without any Republican help. But there are pressures within the 255-member Democratic caucus, with some conservative Blue Dogs and centrist New Democrats sympathetic to the Senate bill’s lower spending totals and higher tax cuts.

On the left, the co-chairmen of the Congressional Progressive Caucus released a letter sent Tuesday to Mrs. Pelosi, attacking the Senate’s lower spending figures for education, aid to states and health care.

“A bill modeled on the Senate version would be very difficult for many progressives to support,” wrote Democrat Reps. Lynn Woolsey of California and Raul M. Grivalja of Arizona. Senate Republicans after Tuesday’s vote complained both about the substance of the bill and the lack of bipartisanship in putting it together.

Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, challenged Democrats to televise the conference deliberations to ensure openness and prevent any new spending programs from being quietly inserted in the package.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee noted Mr. Obama secured just three Republicans out of 219 in the House and Senate to back his plan. He predicted the president will have an even tougher time finding Republican support for difficult issues still in the pipeline, including energy and health care reform.

“This is not a good beginning to have the kind of bipartisan framework most of us want to have,” he said.

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