Senate Democrats are on a collision course in the chamber over a bill that would extend numerous tax incentives and unemployment insurance benefits, and it is likely, according to a number of senior Senate Democratic leadership aides, that the $141 billion package will have to be scaled back, as concerns over the rising deficit have rattled some members of the majority.
As it stands, the current bill would increase the deficit by nearly $80 billion, which is causing some heartburn among more fiscally conservative Democrats, like Sens. Ben Nelson, D-NE, and Evan Bayh, D-IN. See how you, the taxpayer, will be affected by this, which does not take into account tax hikes on the oil and gas industry, as well as the investment industry that will be used to offset some of these costs.
Those same senior aides said outside groups, exerting an inordinate about of pressure on members, and some more liberal Democrats need to see a couple of test votes in order to know that Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, does not have the 60 votes he needs to shut down debate (called "invoking cloture" in Senate-speak) and get to final passage. One Democratic aide told Fox, "They have to see we tried, then we can move to something smaller."
That same aide said Democrats particularly like a proposal by Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT, that would trim off about $6 billion from the price tag by slimming down the unemployment benefits in the bill. Tester would shrink weekly checks to recipients by $25, an increase that started in the stimulus bill earlier this year and has continued since.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, on Tuesday told reporters, "I think everything, a lot of things, will be on the table, if we don't get cloture," naming the Medicare doctor fix as a likely candidate. There is a 19-month patch to the current formula, stopping a whopping 21% cut in the doctors' federal reimbursement. Stabenow praised the Tester proposal as presenting a possible way forward to final passage for the bill.
The senator criticized Republicans for voting for a larger bill in March that added more to the deficit than the bill currently on the floor, but a spokesman for Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, said the dynamics surrounding the debate have changed, most notably the nation has hit the $13 trillion debt mark.
Stabenow saw a different cause. "Politics. It's all politics. They think this is what voters want this fall, so that's what they're after," the senator accused.
One senior Senate Democratic aide said an alternative bill is already waiting in the wings, saying only the $24 billion Medicaid money for the states is likely to remain unscathed, with the Medicare doctors seeing only a 12-month fix to the current reimbursement formula.
Once Democrats dispense with the cloture vote on Wednesday, and possibly an amendment by Sen. John Thune, R-SD, as well, that would fully offset (and even decrease the deficit) a package of tax incentives and unemployment benefits, the leader would then move quickly to the alternate package.
One Democratic senator who asked not to be named discussing strategy and who has seen the alternate bill, tells Fox that more of the bill will be offset, less will go to increasing the deficit, though the senator would not say from where the revenue would come.
But in an unlikely turn, Stabenow would not rule out unallocated stimulus funds being used to pay for some items in the bill, a move that is becoming increasingly popular in the House though has been seen as anathema in the Senate. "People are looking at everything at this point. From my point, this is about getting jobs to people as fast as possible," Stabenow said.