Obama Goes All-In to Grow Stimulus Vote

Posted February 3, 2009 at 6:29pm

President Barack Obama continued a massive push to save his nearly $900 billion stimulus package on Tuesday, deploying his top advisers to the Senate, giving network interviews and personally wooing moderate Republicans and Republican governors.

Bipartisan support for a major legislative package to address the faltering U.S. economy remains strong, and Democratic leaders still aim for Senate passage by the end of the week.

But Senators from both parties were preparing major amendments that would redirect significant portions of the stimulus to items such as housing and infrastructure. Republicans narrowly beat back a Democratic proposal Tuesday on a point of order to add $25 billion to the plan for infrastructure projects, arguing that it should have been offset by cuts elsewhere in the mammoth bill.

“I think most of my Members feel that you can get the job done with a lot less than a trillion-dollar spending package,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said. “And so what we are hoping to do is to pare it down and target it right at the problem, rather than have it keep ballooning upward and upward and upward. … We need to sober up here and take a look at what we’re doing.”

Republicans in particular are planning amendments that would redirect some spending to items such as tax credits for home buying and lowering mortgage interest rates, and conservative Republicans led by Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) are proposing to cut the size of the package in half.

Obama has made efforts to reach out to moderates such as Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who wants more money for infrastructure and health research, and Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who are getting personal overtures from Obama as he hopes to shore up support for the bill.

Specter, who met privately with Obama Tuesday morning at the White House, said he expressed some frustrations with the process used by House and Senate Democratic leaders in developing the stimulus package.

“I told him that I think we need a stimulus,” Specter said, but “I have some deep reservations about passing the bill without regular order.”

Specter said that during their 15-minute meeting, which also briefly touched on the issue of judicial nominations, Obama reiterated his desire to complete the bill by Feb. 13 and that he hoped enough changes would be made to garner broad bipartisan support. While Obama did not commit to pressing Democrats specifically to take on some Republican proposals, “he did say the Senate has a chance to make changes … [and] asked me to give bipartisan support for his stimulus package” once the legislation is completed, Specter said.

But the bill that passed the House, and additional expenditures added to the legislation by Senate Democrats, have made the package unpalatable to some key Republican moderates in the upper chamber.

Collins said Tuesday that the House version is a nonstarter.

“I want a bill that’s bipartisan, effective and targeted, and that’s our joint goal,” Collins said. “I would be hard-pressed to vote for the House-passed bill. I don’t think that it meets those criteria.”

But Obama also has work to do in his own party, as some Democratic Senators are voicing concerns about the package and want major changes.

“We’re working on an amendment with many of our colleagues, Republican and Democrat, to take out things that are lower priority and shift them, reallocate money to places where it’s more badly needed,” with housing a key priority, Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said.

“I want to make [the bill] more transparent. I want to have more accountability, and I want to make sure the large percentage of the dollars go to creating jobs and stimulating the economy as immediately as possible,” Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) said.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) indicated that the House would accept adding the $70 billion patch to the alternative minimum tax to the stimulus plan as well as more money for infrastructure, but he said leaders want to keep the overall size of the package to about $900 billion.

Even if lawmakers hammer out a compromise, the days of massive bailouts and stimulus packages aren’t over.

Conrad said he expects another request in the range of $300 billion to $500 billion to shore up the financial system.

John Stanton, David M. Drucker and Emily Pierce contributed to this report.