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Senate Democrats, White House Scramble to Revive Bailout Bill

Senate Democrats and the White House scrambled Wednesday evening to resuscitate a dying auto industry bailout bill, as Senate Republicans appeared unwilling and unable to provide the support necessary to beat back an expected filibuster.

The situation had a familiar ring given that most sessions of Congress typically end with an apparent collapse of the process before giving way to a breakthrough that allows Members to go home for the holidays. Still, supporters of the bailout faced a heavy lift in convincing as many as 14 to 18 Republicans to vote for the bill after their leaders repeatedly declined invitations to participate in negotiations with Democrats and the White House.

With the House passing a bill 237-170-1 tonight, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) planned to make a last-ditch attempt to complete work on the measure this week. He was expected to offer Republicans a series of votes Thursday in an attempt to assuage their concerns that the bill does not go far enough to ensure that carmakers have a plan to return to viability if given $14 billion in loans from the federal government.

“Despite all of the criticisms that are being raised, we do think there’s a decent chance we can line up a couple of votes [Thursday] and possibly have final passage,” one Senate Democratic leadership aide said. The aide would not say whether Democrats would be willing to further alter the bill to meet GOP demands.

As of Wednesday evening, it was yet unclear if allowing Republicans votes on amendments would be enough to cause a handful of GOP Senators to back down from their threats to slow-walk the bill.

Democrats were hopeful that the pressure to leave town for the holidays would help Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to convince his GOP colleagues to stand down in exchange for setting up an artificial 60-vote threshold on the measure. But it was unclear if McConnell was even planning to make such a pitch.

Still, Reid moved Wednesday to set up a test vote on the bill for Friday. Senate Democratic aides said that if they could not complete work on the plan Thursday, Reid might have to follow through on his threat to work through the weekend, and that votes on Monday would become a real possibility. Senate Republicans are key to passage of any bailout bill, given that overcoming a filibuster requires 60 votes.

Reid is currently operating with a narrow 51-49 majority, and not all Democratic Senators are expected to be in town for votes this week or next. Additionally, President-elect Barack Obama’s seat remains vacant.

But GOP Senators said they were reluctant to support the measure, which was hammered out between Congressional Democrats and the Bush White House in recent days. White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and Vice President Dick Cheney attended the Republicans’ weekly luncheon to urge passage of the measure, but Senators said that those pleas fell on deaf ears.

“I think they had less support when they left than when they came in,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said. He described the bill as “the product from an administration that wants to kick the can down the road and let somebody else deal with it. And, I think it has minimal to very little support in our caucus.”

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