Democrats push vote of huge U.S. stimulus plan

WASHINGTON Thu Feb 5, 2009 6:33pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With President Barack Obama saying "the time for action is now," his fellow Democrats in the Senate on Thursday pushed toward passage of a huge economic stimulus package despite scant Republican support.

More than a dozen moderate Democratic and Republican senators argued the $900 billion package should be cut by $50 billion to $100 billion, as they sought a compromise amid complaints the bill was too big and contained spending that would not boost the struggling U.S. economy.

But Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid indicated he might be able to pass the package even without Republican backing. Aides said Reid bet he could win approval with limited reductions and feared slashing the proposal by $100 billion could backfire and cost him Democratic votes.

"Our number one goal is to pass this bill," Reid told reporters. "They (the Republicans) cannot hold the president of the United States hostage."

Obama had sought bipartisan support for the stimulus plan as part of his promise to change the tone in Washington. But partisan bickering quickly resumed, and Democrats in the House of Representatives passed their version of the stimulus package last week with no Republican support at all.

In the Senate, Democrats need 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to override any Republican roadblocks. Reid said he believed he had enough support to muscle the measure through.

Senior Republicans aides said Reid might get 60, provided he permitted at least some cuts.

If Democrats fail to finish considering a long list of amendments on Thursday, Reid could file a motion to force a showdown vote that would clear the way for an overall vote on passage within the next few days.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has sought cuts, but does not want to be seen as obstructing efforts to stem the worst economic crisis since The Great Depression, party aides said.

SEARCHING FOR A COMPROMISE

Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska were leading the drive by moderates to find a compromise.

"I don't know that we can get it done tonight, but I'm hopeful that we can get it done tomorrow," Collins said.

Nelson said White House officials still hoped for a bipartisan solution, but Obama, taking a tougher tone, warned that "time for talk is over."

"The time for action is now, because we know that, if we do not act, a bad situation will become dramatically worse," Obama said in a speech at the Energy Department.

Obama said Republican ideas were "rooted in the idea that tax cuts alone can solve all our problems, that government doesn't have a role to play, that half-measures and tinkering are somehow enough ...."

Referring to eight years under Republican President George W. Bush, Obama said, "Those ideas have been tested, and they have failed. They've taken us from surpluses to an annual deficit of over $1 trillion. And they've brought our economy to a halt."

Republican Senator John McCain, who lost to Obama in the November presidential election, criticized what he called a Democratic rush to pass the bill. "They are establishing a very partisan approach to the greatest domestic challenge we face," he said.

Obama, who set a February 16 deadline for a bill to reach his desk, has sought to reinforce public backing for the plan through interviews with all the main television stations and in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post on Thursday.

"If nothing is done, this recession might linger for years .... our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse," he wrote.

JOBS DISAPPEARING FAST

In his speech at the Energy Department, Obama seized on data that showed new jobless claims at a 26-year high as evidence that time was of the essence.

"But these numbers that we're seeing are sending an unmistakable message, and so are the American people, that time for talk is over," he said.

About a third of the existing Senate package is composed of tax relief, with the rest devoted to spending on such projects as rebuilding roads and bridges and schools.

Republicans want more tax relief and less spending. They complain some projects would do little to stimulate the economy or create jobs. Democrats say the spending that Republicans call wasteful amounts to less than 1 percent of the package.

Senate Democrat Dick Durbin said of Republicans: "They're carping over trifles."

Reid said he planned to confer with Collins and Nelson. "I think they are very close to coming up with their proposal," Reid said. "I take very seriously what they are trying to do."

Collins said she could not support the $819 billion version of the measure passed last week by the House.

Once the Senate passes its bill, differences between the two measures must be ironed out before a final measure can be sent to Obama to sign into law.

(Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky and Steve Holland; Editing by David Storey and Philip Barbara)