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Stimulus Plan Still in Flux

House and Senate Democratic leaders on Tuesday began a sprint to finalize a massive economic stimulus bill before the end of the week, even as five Senate centrists dug into their positions and appeared to call for tens of billions in more cuts from the bill before they would vote for any final version.

The five Senators responsible for the compromise that allowed the measure to pass the Senate on Tuesday sought to broaden their base of support in the Senate in order to strengthen their hand in the final negotiations. Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) struck a deal last week with Senate Democratic leaders to pare the Senate bill by $108 billion in exchange for their votes.

To avoid being a small gang trying to hold back the desires of an otherwise unified Congressional Democratic leadership that wants to add back billions in spending for school construction and aid to states, Snowe, Collins, Lieberman and Nelson met Tuesday afternoon with a large group of Senate Democratic moderates to try to convince them to support their position heading into conference. Specter was not spotted at the meeting.

Asked whether the goal had been achieved with the 14 Senate Democrats who attended, Snowe said she felt there was general agreement in the room to back the position the five had staked out, but she cautioned that no formal decisions were made.

“We’re trying to get a consensus ... and just get a sense of their feelings about different issues,” Snowe explained. She added that the additional Senators were “giving direction as well” to the lead centrist negotiators as the conference speeds to a close.

Senators who attended the centrist meeting included more experienced Members such as Tom Carper (D-Del.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), as well as freshmen such as Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).

Centrist Republicans and Democrats said conferees would likely have to shave the bill by tens of billions more than the $108 billion taken out of the Senate measure to guarantee final passage. Though the Senate passed an $838 billion bill and the House passed a $816 billion measure, key moderates said they were asking for the final bill to come in at about $780 billion, which would include a nearly $70 billion patch to make sure the alternative minimum tax does not hit middle-income families.

Still, Senators and aides said the likely compromise would be to have a conference report that costs approximately $800 billion — a price tag all three moderate Republicans have indicated they might be able to support as long as it still includes the AMT fix. The key will be in what is added back and how. If it’s school construction money, the additions probably would not fly, but aid to states could make it back in, aides and Senators said Tuesday.

Senators and aides predicted that key Senate amendments adding tax credits for homebuyers and new car purchases would be axed to make room for additional spending, as well as to help trim the bill further.

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