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Forget the Pork in Stimulus Bill. Where's the 'Jot and Tittle?'

As lobbyists, economists, journalists and lawmakers examine precisely what Democratic leaders wrote in the 1071-page, $787 billion stimulus bill aimed at jolting the U.S. economy, perhaps the most important things to scour the package for are so-called "jots and tittles."

Two Democratic lawmakers used the colorful phrase this week to defend the massive legislation against Republican attacks.

Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., uttered it as the midnight oil burned Thursday in the House Rules Committee to show his displeasure with Republican carping that no one read the bill or knew what was in it.

"Even if they had read every jot and tittle, they still ain't gonna vote for it," Hastings huffed, referring to Republicans standing foursquare in unanimous opposition against the first draft of the stimulus plan in late January. And they were poised to follow suit again for the final bill.

Republicans continued to crow about not reading the bill after the House okayed the measure Friday afternoon. That's when House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., used the phrase too, asserting the public supported the legislation, even if they weren't familiar with the particulars.

"Not that they knew every jot and tittle," Hoyer said.

So what is a jot and tittle? A child's board game? A Capitol Hill version of "Jabberwocky" from Lewis Carroll?

Jots are actually the smallest letters of the alphabet in Greek and Hebrew. But tittles are more diminutive yet. Like the stem or seraph of a letter. Or even an accent mark.

In Capitol Hill parlance, the congressional equivalents of jots and tittles can sometimes make or break a bill. And often they are often overlooked when Congress tackles behemoth legislation.

Legislative words weigh tons. They can mean the difference between a billion here and a billion there. To parrot President Clinton in his deposition in the Monica Lewinsky case, it sometimes even depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is.

So Wednesday afternoon, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., delayed a final House-Senate negotiating session to huddle with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and consult with key members of the House Democratic Caucus. They parsed and honed the definitive verbiage of what would evolve into the stimulus bill.

"Around here, the language means a lot," Pelosi said. "It rolls off the tongue, and one person's understanding of it, of a spoken description, might vary from others'."

There was even last-minute wrangling with the White House over what should be in the bill.

"We wanted to take all the time that was necessary, though, to know that it was right," Pelosi said.

Pelosi's been around long enough to know that big bills can make big headaches. The sheer volume and scope of the legislation increases the potential for error and parliamentary chicanery.

In 2004, lawmakers unearthed a provision in a massive, omnibus spending bill that would allow two committee chairmen to peer into the tax returns of every citizen. No one seemed to know who inserted the option into the bill. And no one claimed responsibility. Congress fixed the loophole a few weeks later.

Congress is still confounded about how a line in a 2005 highway bill morphed from plans to improve Interstate 75 in Fort Myers, Fla., near Coconut Road to calling for the construction of an interchange. The problem in this instance is that the language shift came after both the House and Senate OK'd the final version of the bill. Congress voted last year to correct that item.

And last spring, Congress was poised to override President Bush's veto of a $300 billion farm bill. But moments before the vote, the House discovered it never sent the president a complete bill in the first place, leaving out an entire section. 

The White House never noticed this either and Bush vetoed a partial bill. The House ultimately blamed the problem on a glitch with the machine that spits out the final text of the legislation. The machine never printed the section in question and no one caught it before sending it to the White House.

Taking more time can certainly diminish mistakes. But it will take people days to truly excavate everything that's in this bill. That's one of the reasons Republicans groused when Democrats ignored a non-binding vote to give the House a two-day pause between finishing the legislation and voting on it.

In the Bible, Matthew 5:18 states that "One jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law until all is fulfilled."

And Democrats are praying that their attention to the jots and tittles of this soon-to-be law will fulfill their aim of reviving the U.S. economy.

FOX News' Chad Pergram has won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

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