WASHINGTON – The Senate begins debate Monday on President Barack Obama's massive economic stimulus package, with opponents vowing to stand firm against the $819 billion plan that passed in the House of Representatives with no Republican backing.
Negotiations were carrying on through the weekend even as Obama invited a bipartisan pack of lawmakers to the White House to watch Sunday's Super Bowl, the American football championship.
Wednesday the House approved the gargantuan stimulus plan aimed at drawing the US economy out of a paralyzing recession. It passed 244 votes to 188 but without a single Republican vote, frustrating Obama's hunt for bipartisan support which included rare, in-person appeals to his foes on Capitol Hill.
In the Senate, the battle lines have been drawn, with Republicans holding out in order to have their ideas taken into account -- namely more tax cuts, reduced public expenditures, and stronger measures to arrest a deepening housing foreclosure crisis.
The White House signaled this week it expected the Senate to include more Republican-friendly items in the measure, leading to a House-Senate compromise bill that would be more likely to win Republican support.
But Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said "my (Republican) colleagues will have better ideas" to stimulate home ownership and reverse the economic slide than those contained in the Democrats' plan.
Several Republican senators have already promised to resist, arguing that the plan as it stands marks a colossal waste of money that will fail to provide economic stimulus.
"It does appear to be a high-risk move on their part to remain unified against this, especially if the economy does turn around by 2010 and the next election," political science professor David Canon of the University of Wisconsin told AFP.
"I think they're banking on being able to ride some of the concern people have about the large budget deficit."
Yet within the Senate Finance Committee, signs of appeasement were noted earlier in the week, when Democrats accepted the addition of almost 70 billion dollars in additional tax cuts.
Republican Senator Olympia Snowe voted for the revived plan in committee.
While Snowe appeared to strike a pose of lone Republican support, Obama and his Democrats took extraordinary steps to obtain further backing from conservatives even though they have enough Democratic votes to pass the bill.
Labor unions had planned a media onslaught designed to heap pressure on a handful of Republicans to support the plan. The strategy called for millions of union members to telephone Republicans from hard-hit states, coupled with an aggressive television advertising campaign targeting potentially vulnerable Republican senators.
The Democratic pressure also ramped up when Obama was reported to be considering tapping New Hampshire's longtime Republican senator Judd Gregg as commerce secretary.
If successful, the move would be a master stroke on the American political chessboard. It would allow New Hampshire's governor to appoint a Democratic successor to Gregg, raising Obama's party to a full 60 seats in the 100-seat Senate -- the number needed to thwart the opposition's blocking tactics.
US media reported that an announcement on Gregg's appointment could come as early as Monday.
The influential senator, who has spent some 16 years in the chamber, also likely would give the new administration additional leverage in its dealings with Republicans, which so far have proven less than fruitful.
One of the Senate's most seasoned hands on business and economic matters, Gregg -- the top Republican negotiator on last year's 700 billion financial bailout bill -- is the ranking member of its budget committee and is known as a staunch fiscal conservative.
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