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Deal Nearing on Stimulus

Bipartisan negotiators are close to an agreement to cut more than $100 billion from the Senate’s economic stimulus bill, but a handful of Republicans are still holding out for assurances that the spending that remains in the package will be temporary.

Just before noon on Friday, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) emerged from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) office and said the key to announcing any deal will be persuading four Senate Republican negotiators to sign on to the amendment. The Republicans who Democrats are trying to strike an accord with include moderate Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Olympia Snowe (Maine), George Voinovich (Ohio) and Arlen Specter (Pa.). Collins has served as the lead GOP negotiator.

Nelson said that the bulk of the work on the amendment has been completed and that the proposal they will offer would trim more than $100 billion from the more than $920 billion measure.

Nelson said the group is trying to craft language ensuring that any increased spending to states or on federal programs would not become permanent.

The amendment calling for massive cuts to the more than $900 billion bill has become crucial to the measure’s ultimate passage, given that many Democrats and several Republicans have said they cannot support the bill without a cut to the price. Democrats need 60 votes to overcome procedural hurdles and pass the bill, meaning they will need the support of all 58 Members of the Democratic Conference and at least two Republicans.

Though Democrats are uneasy with the hefty cuts to education and other programs in the negotiators’ amendment, it appears they are likely to vote for the proposal in order to get the bill into conference with the House, where adjustments can be made.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said he expects Democrats will “vote for the amendment with the understanding that it’s moving the process along.”

Earlier Friday, Reid prodded bipartisan negotiators to finish work quickly on the amendment so that the Senate could complete work on the measure later in the day.

“We’re nearing the time when negotiations must be completed and action must begin,” Reid said on the floor Friday morning. “So I urge my colleagues, both Democrats and Republicans, to dedicate this day to responsibly passing this legislation and sending it to the president.”

He added that he hoped to have the bipartisan amendment ready to vote on between 5 and 7 p.m.

“We’re going to be able to work something out. I feel very comfortable that we can do that,” he said.

But Nelson was not so sure, saying he hoped the amendment could be completed Friday but could not go so far as to say he expected that outcome.

But even if a deal on the compromise amendment comes together, sources said hundreds of amendments have been filed, and it is unclear which Senators will insist on having a vote on their proposals before a vote on final passage can be held.

In order to pass the bill Friday, Reid will need all Republicans to consent to a vote — likely with a 60-vote threshold. But that may be a tough sell given that most GOP Senators’ opposition to the measure has stiffened.

“We will not support an aimless spending spree that masquerades as a stimulus,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on the floor.

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