WASHINGTON – The Senate was struggling to finish work Thursday on President Obama’s economic recovery plan after a weeklong debate that has increased the price of the package to more than $900 billion and tested the new president’s ability to win Republican support for one of his most pressing priorities.
A key question is whether the Democratic-led Senate will trim the bill’s cost to win over critics who have said it is too laden with spending that would not promote job creation and economic growth.
The legislation is a cornerstone of Obama’s ambitious effort to end the recession and lay the groundwork for long-term economic growth. But Democrats have all but abandoned his goal of broad bipartisan support for the bill.
After the Senate votes, the bill might be substantially revised in a conference committee that will reconcile differences between the Senate and House versions. That will give Obama a shot at drawing GOP support to the compromise version, which he hopes to sign by mid-February.
Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., predicted Thursday that in the end, Republicans would vote for the bill.
"Let’s work out our differences and get to final passage," Cochran said on National Public Radio.
But in the shorter term, the Senate was steaming toward a vote that was likely to be split nearly entirely along party lines. When the House passed its $819 billion version, not a single Republican voted for it.
The bill is a sweeping package of tax breaks for people and businesses to spur economic growth; expanded benefits for the unemployed; aid to states to help maintain health and education services; and funding for infrastructure projects.
It also includes a hodgepodge of other items, such as spending for increased broadband access in rural areas and for computerizing medical records, that Democrats say will modernize the economy and contribute to long-term growth.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said midday Thursday that he believed there were enough votes to pass the bill. But the tenor of debate grew more partisan, with Republicans sharpening their criticism and Democrats accusing the GOP of turning aside Obama’s gestures of bipartisanship.
In one oasis of bipartisanship, a group of centrist Republicans and Democrats headed by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., met behind closed doors to trim items that critics said would not have an immediate stimulative effect, such as funding for Amtrak and climate-change research. They were struggling to find items that would add up to their target of $50 billion in cuts without driving away too many votes.