Senate advances measure, clearing the way for likely approval today.
WASHINGTON - President Obama's economic recovery plan cleared a crucial hurdle in the Senate on Monday as Democrats and a few Republicans voted to end debate, opening the way for final approval today of the administration's first big policy initiative.
The 61-36 vote sets the stage for key negotiations later this week to reconcile major differences between the House and Senate versions of the stimulus plan. Although the two versions carry almost identical costs, they differ significantly on their underlying strategies for pulling the economy out of its tailspin.
In a concession to some Republican moderates and conservative Democrats whose support was crucial for avoiding a GOP filibuster, the Senate bill relies heavily on tax cuts -- a traditional Republican approach.
Despite such concessions by Senate Democrats, only three Republicans joined 56 Democrats -- including Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who suffers from brain cancer -- and two Independents to end debate, a procedural decision that requires a 60-vote majority. Now, the bill can pass today by a simple majority vote.
Still, the victors claimed the accomplishment reached across party lines. "I am proud of the bipartisan work we have done during the last few days," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. She was a principal architect in the defection of three GOP moderates -- she, her fellow senator from Maine, Olympia Snowe, and Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter. They agreed to support the bill after more than $100 billion in spending was stripped from the bill last week, although much of that was added back by Senate amendments.
Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said: "Senators from both parties met the seriousness of the economic crisis with an earnest approach to solving this emergency."
However, many Republicans bashed the package. "Should it pass this week, no one should be fooled to think it was done in a bipartisan way," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.
But for all the recriminations -- from both sides -- it was unclear if Congress, in reconciling the Senate and House versions, would take steps to ensure that it provides the quickest, most effective lift for the economy, or if lawmakers would simply take the path of least political resistance in rushing to get the bill to the White House by Monday. The overarching political concern for negotiators will be to resolve such differences in a way that does not alienate Collins, Snowe and Specter. Those three could still hold up a final bill in the Senate.
Aid to states will be a particularly thorny issue. Critics of the state aid -- set at $79 billion in the House bill and $39 billion in the Senate bill -- say that the federal government should not be in the business of bailing out states that could do more to cut their own spending. The money, while not providing a direct lift to the economy, would reduce pressure on states for layoffs and service cuts.
As it stands, the Senate bill focuses more on tax cuts, while the House bill provides more aid to state and local governments. The Senate bill does not include $19 billion for school construction included in the House bill, reduces health insurance subsidies for the unemployed, and scales back President Obama's proposed middle class tax cut.
The Senate bill also includes nearly $70 billion to prevent millions of middle class families in 2009 from having to pay the alternative minimum tax. Because Congress has made such an adjustment for years now, economists say the provision offers no new help to the economy.
Moments before the vote, the Congressional Budget Office issued a new estimate that put the cost at $838 billion, an increase from the $827 billion figure from last week.
The New York Times and Associated Press contributed to this report.