WASHINGTON -Senate leaders called off plans to vote on President Barack Obama's economic recovery plan late last night in hopes that a group of centrist lawmakers from both parties would be able to fashion a compromise that would cut the cost of the $937 billion bill and win support from at least a few Republicans.
After a long day of behind-the-scenes negotiations, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, dropped plans to hold a final vote on the bill. The bipartisan group worked into the night to trim up to $100 billion, an attempt to bring moderate Republicans on board without driving Democrats away.
The stimulus bill is a cornerstone of Obama's efforts to revive the economy. But his hopes for bipartisan support have faded amid Republican complaints that it is laden with spending that would not promote the creation of jobs and does not offer enough in tax cuts. The House passed the legislation without a single Republican vote, and its price has grown by about $100 billion since reaching the Senate.
Yesterday, the Senate rejected a full-scale alternative proposed by former GOP presidential candidate John McCain of Arizona that would have provided more tax cuts and less spending than Obama wants.
If the overnight effort to find a bipartisan compromise fails, Reid said, the final vote might not come until next week.
Obama's personal and political prestige are on the line, because he has been deeply involved in lobbying reluctant senators and trying to reach across the aisle to Republicans. The president showed a flash of impatience yesterday morning, saying: "The time for talk is over. The time for action is now."
Speaking in the evening to House Democrats at a retreat in Williamsburg, Va., Obama warned that without swift action on the bill, "an economy that is already in crisis will be faced with catastrophe."
After the Senate votes, the bill could be substantially revised in a conference committee that will reconcile differences between the Senate and House versions.
The bill is a sweeping package of tax breaks for individuals and for businesses to spur economic growth; expanded benefits for the unemployed; aid to states to help maintain health and education services; and funding for highway repairs and other infrastructure projects.
It includes a hodgepodge of other items, such as spending for increased broadband access in rural areas and for computerizing medical records, which Democrats say will modernize the economy and contribute to long-term growth.
The tenor of debate grew more partisan yesterday, with Republicans sharpening their criticism of the bill and Democrats accusing the GOP of rebuffing Obama's gestures of bipartisanship.
"This bill stinks," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, said GOP opposition demonstrated that "the hard right still has a stranglehold on most Republicans."
When the Senate considered McCain's alternative, which would have cut the price tag to $421 billion, the vote split on strict party lines, 57-40.
Another marquee GOP amendment - a proposal designed to bolster the housing market - drew support only from Republicans.
The proposal, drafted by Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, would have provided government-backed mortgages at a 4 percent fixed rate - a plan that would cost $300 billion or more.
The Senate earlier in the week had adopted a different measure intended to help the housing market: a $15,000 homebuyers' tax credit for people purchasing their primary residence. That is up from a $7,500 credit in existing law, which is available only to first-time homebuyers and eventually has to be repaid.
All week, debate in the Senate has featured an oasis of bipartisanship in the group of centrists headed by Sens. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican, and Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat. Collins said she was aiming to keep the package below $800 billion, but that might be too large a cut to retain Democratic support.
"It's very difficult because everyone has certain pet programs in the bill," Collins said. Among the items they are considering cutting are National Science Foundation spending, school construction funds and Amtrak funding.
For all the complaints about the bill's spiraling price tag, most of the changes made during Senate debate have added to the cost. As it came to the floor, the bill cost $885 billion, including $70 billion that the Finance Committee added to prevent thousands of middle-income taxpayers from having to pay higher taxes because of the Alternative Minimum Tax.
The $15,000 homebuyers' tax credit, sponsored by Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, added $19 billion. The Senate also added $6.5 billion for biomedical research by voice vote.
The Senate changes, most with Republican support, drove the price perilously close to the $1 trillion mark. Despite the fact that those add-ons were supported and even introduced by Republicans, the core of their opposition to the bill is that it includes too much spending and not enough tax cuts.
"If you started the day Jesus Christ was born and spent $1 million every day since then, you still wouldn't have spent $1 trillion," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.