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Pressure From All Sides

February 10, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

With the economic stimulus package (H.R. 1) now cleared by both the House and the Senate, Democratic leaders are facing pressure from everyone who helped them get this far to change the bill before they bring it back for a final vote.

Since the House and Senate passed different versions of the bill, a conference committee made up of members from both parties will convene to hammer out the differences. There are some big ones – chief among them are the Senate’s addition of an Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) patch and drastic cuts to state education funds. Democrats in the conference committee will be trying to work out a sweet spot that keeps their party together and retains what little Republican support they have.

The basic decision Democrats need to make is whether to move the bill closer to what was passed by the House and risk losing a crucial Republican vote (or three) in the Senate, or move it closer to the Senate’s version and drop some Democrats in the House off of the left.

In the House, the legislation passed with 26 votes to spare. Yesterday, the Progressive Caucus, which, at 71 members, is the largest caucus in the House, sent a letter to Nancy Pelosi expressing their concerns with the Senate version of the stimulus. Depending on how serious they are, this could be fatal for the stimulus.

Congress Daily ($):

>"Simply put, the Senate-passed version will not address the urgent fiscal, social, and educational needs of this country," the letter said. “In fact, we fear that we may only get one bite at this apple. Therefore, we must take this opportunity to act boldly now.”
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>House Democratic leaders continue to bristle at the Senate compromise. Over the weekend, Pelosi raised concerns about the cut to the state fiscal stabilization fund.
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>Sources in a closed-door Democratic leadership meeting Monday evening said that members remain generally angry about the cuts.

If even half of the Progressive Caucus decides to vote against the bill if the Senate’s cuts are included, they could make it virtually impossible for the conference committee to create a compromise that will pass the Senate.

There’s a lot less wiggling room in the Senate. Democrats hold a 58-seat majority there, which means that, for most votes, they need to pick off at least two Republicans. The Senate passed their version of the bill with three Republican votes in favor – only one vote to spare. Today, at least two of the three Republicans that voted with the Democrats stated that they reserve the right to change their “aye” votes to “nays” if the bill that comes back from the conference committee is not to their liking. Losing them both would cause the bill to fail in the Senate.

Arlen Specter (R-PA): “My support for the Conference Report on the stimulus package will require that the Senate compromise bill come back virtually intact including, but not limited to, overall spending, the current ratio of tax cuts to spending, and the $110 billion in cuts.”

Susan Collins (R-ME): “I have made it very clear that if the bill comes back with a lot of the unnecessary expenditures crammed back in it with deep cuts in the tax relief provided to the American people than the Democrats will lose my vote.”

UPDATE: Democrat Sen. Ben Nelson, one of the chief negotiators of the Senate’s bill, has joined Specter and Collins in warning against making any big changes in the conference committee:

>Nebraska Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson, who carved out a kingmaker role at the center (literally) of the stimulus fight, is warning House Democrats he won’t support anything that differs very much from the Senate bill that will pass easily tonight.
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>"It can’t be materially different as to the topline [of about $830 billion] or as to the pieces in the package," he tells Politico.
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>But he left a little bit of daylight, saying he’s “never said never” about anything.
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>Asked if he could accept the restoration of education aid to the states, he replied: “If they [the House leadership] can persuade the three Republicans” who voted for the stimulus cloture last night “they could do that” — suggesting he wouldn’t be swayed unless there were major House cuts to other parts of the program.

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