WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats worked to revise their $900 billion economic stimulus bill on Wednesday, hoping to drum up enough Republican support to get it across the finish line next week.
“I urge members of Congress to act without delay,” Obama said before signing children’s healthcare legislation. “No plan is perfect, and we should work to make it stronger. But let’s not make the perfect the enemy of the essential.”
After warning the country faced potential “catastrophe” if they did not act quickly, he met separately at the White House with two moderate Republicans, Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, to discuss ways to win their support.
The Senate spent a third day debating the package, which Obama wants on his desk by February 16, to try to reverse the downward spiral of the U.S. economy with a combination of tax cuts, infrastructure spending and other measures.
Democrats lack the 60 votes needed in the Senate to overcome potential Republican roadblocks and Obama wants healthy bipartisan support after the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed its own stimulus plan last week despite winning no Republican backing.
Republicans want to trim spending provisions and boost tax cuts and incentives, floating several alternatives and pushing demands that Congress do more to address the housing crisis.
Collins said she raised concerns about provisions in the bill passed by the House that “may be worthwhile but would not stimulate the economy,” including funds to upgrade facilities at the State Dept and money for pandemic flu preparedness.
“I believe we need to have a more targeted and effective bill to pass the Senate with bipartisan support. ... That is my goal,” she told reporters after her meeting with Obama.
Snowe said after her meeting that she had offered suggestions on how to ensure every element of the stimulus package help create jobs and remove those that do not.
“The president was very amenable to recommendations and to suggestions,” she said.
South Carolina’s two conservative Republican senators, Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint, went so far as to call for a “time out” in the economic stimulus legislation so Obama can consider alternatives.
“I’m asking the president to take a time out,” Graham told reporters, to allow time for a bipartisan deal “to see if we can solve this problem without spending $800 to $900 billion.”
The bill started in the Senate at about $885 billion but senators on Tuesday added $11 billion by making interest payments on new car purchases tax deductible, an attempt to spur sales amid record auto company losses.
They also added an extra $6.5 billion for medical research but cut $246 million in tax credits for the movie industry. Numerous other amendments have been introduced to expand home purchase tax credits and lower income tax rates.
Republicans have complained the bill does not address the housing crisis sufficiently.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier this week Republicans did not want to block the bill but that modifications were needed to kick-start the ailing economy.
“There’s plenty of room to cut in this bill. It’s time we started doing some of it,” the Kentucky Republican said on the Senate floor on Wednesday.
Republicans are not the only ones with reservations about the growing stimulus package.
Senator Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, is working with Collins, a Maine Republican, to strip out spending criticized as ineffective and shift some of the money to more construction projects.
The Senate was expected to vote on a slew of amendments later on Wednesday, including Republican attempts to stem the tide of mortgage foreclosures and eliminate language that would force construction projects funded by the bill to use American steel and iron.
Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Editing by John O'Callaghan