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Price Rises on Bipartisanship

GOP Senators Exact a Toll

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Senate Democrats discovered over the past few weeks that there can be a hefty price to pay for bipartisanship after a trio of Senate Republicans compelled them to shave more than $100 billion off the economic stimulus bill.

With the U.S. economy in a downward spiral, the price a handful of Senate Republicans could demand for their votes on future economic recovery plans may become more and more painful for both President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats.

After all, only three Republicans out of a total of 219 in both chambers voted for the $787 billion economic stimulus package passed last week. And members of both parties predicted the sticker shock that will come from Obama’s emerging plan to shore up the financial sector — along with another potential stimulus measure, regular appropriations bills and supplemental war spending — could harden GOP hearts, as well as those of some centrist Democrats.

“This is a town where you’ve got to count votes, and for those [Democrats] who are not happy and think that too much was extracted, they need to count votes,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who helped broker the Senate deal that ensured three GOP Senators would vote for the stimulus measure.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will likely need 60 votes for every major economic recovery bill that comes to the floor, given any one Senator can object on procedural grounds and force a supermajority vote on legislation.

Though Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) lost seven Democrats and still passed the stimulus by a comfortable 246-183 margin, Reid was reliant on the votes of Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) to get it passed.

For that, he had to trim $108 billion from the Senate bill and tens of billions more in conference with the House.

Collins — and Nelson — said that while they are comfortable being in the spotlight and negotiating bipartisan deals, they cannot be counted on in every instance.

“I am not an automatic for either side,” Collins said on Friday. “Neither am I,” chimed in Nelson, who was standing next to her at the time.

Specter said he is not necessarily comfortable continuing to provide Democrats with their 60th vote from here on out.

“I’d feel less uncomfortable being the 61st and even better about being the 67th,” Specter said. Still, he said he would evaluate each issue on a case-by-case basis.

Currently, Reid is operating with an otherwise comfortable 58-Member Democratic caucus, but the stimulus debate showed just how difficult getting to 60 can be, regardless of the size of the majority.

Reid’s difficulty could be compounded by the continued absence of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is battling a brain tumor. Kennedy’s absence could be counterbalanced by comedian Al Franken, if he is declared the winner over former GOP Sen. Norm Coleman (Minn.). The contested 2008 race continues to wend its way through state courts.

Regardless, Reid found that getting Republican votes wasn’t his only problem on the stimulus. More than a dozen centrist Democrats were involved in the Nelson-Collins negotiating sessions.

“I think it becomes as increasingly difficult to get three Republicans as it does to hold all the Democrats,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said.

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