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Leaders Whip on Stimulus

Facing the prospect of defections from vulnerable lawmakers, Senate Republican leaders on Wednesday were busy whipping their Members to block Democrats from altering a fragile House-brokered economic stimulus bill.

That effort was complicated by the fact that Senate Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) joined Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) in crafting their own stimulus plan, which the Finance panel passed on Wednesday. Grassley has pledged to help Baucus fend off other amendments that could make that package larger and more unwieldy.

But Senate Chief Deputy Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said GOP leaders’ objective in the coming floor debate will be to make sure the Finance stimulus package does not get a filibuster-proof 60 votes. He declined to detail how Republicans planned to do that.

Passing the Finance measure, Thune said, would send the bill to conference with the House, a scenario that would “wreck the balance that was struck” between the White House and House Democrats and Republicans.

Indeed, President Bush, along with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), warned the Senate repeatedly that any change to the House measure threatens to delay or derail the bill’s enactment.

And because Senate Democrats decided to create their own package, the path forward is fraught with peril for the bill.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) summed up the difficulty facing the Republicans, who do not want legislation that adds too much to the deficit, nor a process that would shut them out of offering amendments. “If we bring the Finance Committee bill to the floor and start adding to it, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble. But if they bring the Finance Committee bill to the floor and don’t let us amend it, they’ll be in trouble,” he said.

That’s why, DeMint and other Republicans said, the Senate should simply take up and pass the House measure without amendment.

But with 23 Senate seats to defend this year, Republicans have no shortage of vulnerable Members eager to put their mark on the stimulus bill or to vote for politically popular programs that were not included in the House-White House agreement, including tax rebate checks for more than 20 million seniors and 250,000 disabled veterans. And if Democrats largely stick together on votes adding provisions to the bill, they would need to pick off only nine to 12 GOP Senators, by most estimates.

“Unemployment in my state has gone from 4.4 percent to 4.9 percent,” lamented Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who faces a tough re-election race this year.

“I haven’t seen the whole package,” he said, but “I would be open to adding a few targeted things to the package,” including unemployment aid, as the Finance package would do.

Similarly, Maine Republicans Susan Collins — who is also up for re-election — and Olympia Snowe have been seeking to add funds for low-income home heating assistance, a proposal Democrats are likely to offer on the Senate floor.

However, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said Senate leaders were attempting to make the case to wavering Members that a bipartisan deal — the House-passed measure, which he called the “Kumbaya package” — is already in hand and that anything else could cause needless delays.

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