WASHINGTON – Partisan maneuvering over an economic stimulus plan has forced Senate leaders to rethink their game plan for getting the package they want to the people they want the way they want it.
The bill may have to be written on the Senate floor as opposed to in the Finance Committee, where fiscal measures usually originate, aides on both sides of the aisle say.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., canceled Tuesday's committee hearing, signaling that Democrats were not unified enough on the committee to pass their preferred version.
Last week, Baucus said he was hopeful he and ranking member Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, could reach agreement and come up with a "compromise bill," but Republicans are now strategizing on a way to move to the floor for a vote.
The House passed its version of an economic stimulus package three weeks ago. The House bill offered $100 billion in unemployment benefits, tax breaks and a tax rebate for low-income workers. The majority of the tax relief — including a repeal of the corporate alternative minimum tax and accelerated depreciation of capital investments — go to big businesses as incentives to get them spending again.
Senate Democrats, however, insist that more money go to unemployment and health insurance, spending that the White House supports in theory but in which it does not want to over-indulge Democrats.
To keep the vote out of committee and put it straight to the floor, Republicans are proposing a series of 70 amendments ranging from capital gains relief to trade expansion to extension of the Northeast Dairy Compact. The most controversial amendment Republicans are considering is an energy bill that includes the president's proposal to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, sure to ignite a contentious fight if offered on the floor.
At this point, Democrats have not settled on an agreement to oppose all of the GOP amendments. Even some of the less contentious issues, like extending the Northeast Dairy Compact, could pose problems for some Democrats under pressure to oppose every GOP amendment but having to answer to their own constituents.
Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., also has weighed in on the dairy compact.
Jeffords earlier this year left the Republican Party to become an independent, effectively handing control of the 50-50 split Senate to the Democrats. To get him to leave the Republicans, Democrats made many deals with him, among them a guarantee that the compact would be extended.
Jeffords has also expressed reservation about a COBRA subsidy, a government-paid health benefit for unemployed workers that the majority of his Democratic colleagues support. Jeffords says he would like to see a COBRA tax credit instead.
Unable to stay unified enough to have all 50 Democratic members vote down each amendment puts Democrats in a difficult situation of not wanting to hold up the stimulus bill and not wanting to pass certain measures they have been hoping to put on the back burner.
Ratcheting up the rhetoric a bit, Republicans say their amendment strategy is similar to what Democrats did on this spring's tax cut bill, when they offered a series of amendments in what became a drawn-out vote-a-thon.
"When they were in the minority, they offered 200 amendments to the tax bill," one GOP aide said, suggesting both sides could play that game.
Democrats have taken their own partisan jabs on the stimulus, with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., saying last week he's getting "mixed messages from the White House" and adding that Democrats will insist on provisions dealing with health insurance and unemployment benefits as part of the package.
"We will not pass a bill that does not include those two critical needs," Daschle said.
President Bush has already warned about too much spending, urging modest aid for unemployed workers and more for tax breaks for businesses and individuals.
White House economic advisor Larry Lindsay said Monday, "Some of what our friends in the other party want to do is expand entitlement programs. I don't think that's the right thing to do."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.