Senate Vote Stalls Stimulus Bill

Posted February 6, 2008 at 6:43pm

The brinkmanship over a Senate economic stimulus package neared its peak Wednesday evening as Senate Republicans made good on their threat to block its passage.

In a nail-biter, Republicans narrowly prevented Democrats from getting the 60 votes needed to cut off debate on a Senate Finance Committee bill that would have expanded a House-passed measure to provide tax rebates to low- and middle-income tax filers and give small businesses investment tax incentives.

The final tally was 58-41, with eight Republicans voting with nearly all Democrats for the Finance measure. Democrats needed nine GOP Senators to prevail.

Despite his loss, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, “I really appreciate the bipartisan nature of this vote.”

Following the vote, Reid said he expected to begin talks Wednesday night with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on how to move forward. Reid indicated the plans will likely include another vote on the Finance measure in the near future. In order to force the revote, par- liamentary rules required Reid to change his vote from yes to no on the package, but he was effectively one vote short of 60.

At press time, it was not clear if Reid would attempt to strike a deal with Republicans or the White House on how to provide tax rebate checks to low-income senior citizens and disabled veterans or simply hope political pressures would force one more Republican to support the package. But Democratic aides indicated that Reid could take a day or two to let those pressures mount.

The Finance bill would have added seniors and veterans as well as slightly higher income eligibility caps to the House plan, and it included an extension of unemployment benefits, expanded tax breaks for small businesses, and an energy tax package. But Republicans said they would only consent to add seniors and veterans, not the other provisions, and they predicted Democrats would soon relent to do just that.

“In an apparent jolt of nostalgia for last year, Senate Democrats decided to co-opt a bipartisan proposal produced by the House to put together a carefully crafted political document coming out of the Senate Finance Committee,” McConnell said on the floor Wednesday. “The point here was to try to do a targeted temporary jolt to our economy and to try to astonish the American people by doing it on a bipartisan basis.”

Given Wednesday night’s vote, one senior Senate Democratic aide acknowledged that Reid will now likely come under increasing pressure from within his own party to hold a vote on the seniors and veterans amendment before voting on final passage of the House bill. But the question remained how Reid could do that and not appear to have gone back on his vow to give the Senate only one chance — through the Finance package — to provide rebates to those groups.

Rank-and-file Democrats expressed dismay at the lost vote, with several expecting that they would ultimately vote today to send the House package to the president.

“I think it’s decided. I think the Senate will just pick up the House plan,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who ripped the GOP. “They don’t blink to spend an extra dollar in Iraq, but if you ask them to spend an extra dollar in America they all cave.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) predicted, however, that there would be at least one more push to enact a package significantly larger than the House deal. “Is this issue dead? I doubt that very much. There is a lot of pressure from the American people that we get this kind of package,” Sanders said.

Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) also predicted Senate Democrats would try to seek an accommodation with Republicans, despite Reid’s earlier take-it-or-leave-it stance.

“I haven’t heard directly from leadership, but that’s my sense about how things really work around here,” he said.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), whose home state has been hard hit by unemployment, blamed last-minute pressure from the White House for the defeat. “The White House put incredible pressure on them,” she said. Stabenow said it would be very difficult to come up with a new package this week given the need for unanimous consent to avoid restarting time-consuming procedural maneuvers.

The senior Senate Democratic aide said Reid tried to court wavering Republicans by telling them he was not bluffing when he said he would not give the Senate another opportunity to vote on including seniors and veterans. But Republicans clearly did not believe him, given that, last week, Reid indicated that he not have the 60 votes necessary to beat back a filibuster and that he would offer a separate amendment adding seniors and veterans to the House-passed bill.

Late last week, Senate Democrats shifted from that strategy when it became clear that they would be getting some heavy-hitting lobbying help from the largest senior citizens organization in the country, AARP, as well as various business groups that support the Finance bill.

That pressure clearly made Republican leaders nervous going into the vote, and some privately acknowledged that preventing nine of their Members from supporting the Finance package was a heavy lift. The eight who voted along with Democrats included Senate Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Sens. Gordon Smith (Ore.), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine), Pete Domenici (N.M.), Elizabeth Dole (N.C.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.).

Earlier Wednesday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) appeared to anticipate the Senate stalemate, saying that the House would not cancel its weeklong Presidents Day recess even if an agreement on the stimulus package remains elusive past Democrats’ self-imposed Feb. 15 deadline.

“I don’t think working through the Presidents recess gets you anything,” Hoyer said, adding that Members would nonetheless discuss the issue at home in their districts. “I certainly think we’ll be working.”

He also cautioned against adopting the Senate Finance package.

“I don’t want to speculate on each and every one of the provisions that the Senate may or may not put in at this point in time, but obviously there are some that we are supportive of,” Hoyer said. “But we will see what the president wants to do. Having a veto fight with the president I don’t think enhances the confidence of the American public in our ability to get things done.”

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said House Republicans would be reluctant to support a significantly more expensive stimulus package, although he declined to say if House Republicans would oppose the Senate Finance package or something very similar to it.

Members “will look at the deficit in the president’s budget and be real reluctant to go beyond” the size of the House package, Blunt said. He added that a stimulus deal needs to be reached before the March recess to be meaningful.

Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.