The Latest on the Stimulus

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Greetings from Capitol Hill where the Senate is in the final throes of the stimulus package – no pun intended. As things stand right now there are 14 amendments/substitutions left on the docket. One more is expected this afternoon from Ben Nelson’s Gang of roughly 16 (the membership, which includes upwards of eight Republicans, keeps fluctuating), which should cinch enough votes for passage. “I have good reason to hope that we might finish this bill this evening,” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said this morning on the Senate floor. “We must move quickly because the recession is so deep. Americans are depending on Congress to act. Let’s act. Let’s get the job done.”

Republicans on the floor today have argued that they’ve only had three days to debate the $900 billion bill. “We spent more time on the farm bill,” lamented Don Stewart, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s spokesman. Opponents could hold up the process and force Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to file for cloture to cut off a filibuster – which could push a vote back to Saturday. “We hope in that case that they’d agree to a vote tomorrow,” said Jim Manley, a senior adviser to Reid. Naysayers, though, may be under pressure to allow an earlier vote from Senators McCain, Lieberman and Kyl who are hoping to make a long-planned foreign affairs conference in Munich this weekend .

House leaders yesterday informed members they need to be back a day early – Monday instead of Tuesday – in order to facilitate passage of the bill, most likely to give both sides plenty of time to count votes. Still, Manley said they would probably have to work through next weekend to get the bill to President Obama’s desk by the target deadline of Feb. 16 — not the kind of stimulus most members were envisioning for Valentines Day. Obama is slated to travel home to Illinois on Feb. 12, no word if the continuing negotiations might affect this trip.

And for anyone thinking that last night’s vote on the DeMint amendment to strip all spending out of the bill means that there are only four Republicans open to voting for the bill, I’m told that vote was misleading. For many Republicans that amendment, which failed, gave them political cover so that if they ultimately vote for the bill they have an election-time retort in case anyone asks why they supported all those Democratic boondoggles.

Nelson’s gang is looking to take out as much as $200 billion in spending, though Manley said some of these cuts that are popular with Dems (like education aid to states) might find their way back into the bill in final negotiations with the House. And that is where the really stimulating fun begins.