A group of nearly 20 moderates from both parties — more Democrats than Republicans — huddled off and on all day Thursday in hopes of cutting as much as $100 billion from Obama's plan, which ballooned to $937 billion on the Senate floor, with further add-ons possible during a long day of votes Friday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., displayed impatience with the moderates, led by Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., at a midday news conference, but he lent them encouragement as he sent senators home later Thursday.
"It's gotten more encouraging and that's because the leadership has indicated that they have some appreciation for the work that this bipartisan group is doing," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. "It's still got life. It's still breathing."
A roster of $88 billion worth of cuts was circulating, almost half of which would come from education grants to states, with an additional $13 billion in aid to local school districts for special education and the No Child Left Behind law on the chopping block as well. Some $870 million to fight the flu was among the first items to go, but other items divided the group.
At the same time, the group also was hoping to add perhaps $25 billion in additional infrastructure projects.
"We've added more tax cuts and tax relief. We've trimmed out some of the fat and now we have to add a little muscle," Landrieu said, referring to additional infrastructure spending.
If the group fails to reach an accord — or if it won't fly with Democratic loyalists — the alternative for Reid is to try to ram the measure through with just a few GOP supporters, such as Olympia Snowe of Maine. He expressed confidence he has the 60 votes needed to press it through if need be.
The massive measure is a key early test for Obama, who has made it the centerpiece of his fledgling presidency. Obama embraced the moderates' efforts, saying he would "love to see additional improvements" in the bill.
Speaking to a House Democratic retreat in Williamsburg, Va., Obama pushed Democrats to avoid political gamesmanship and get a stimulus bill to his desk by next week.
Voters who ousted Republicans from power "didn't vote for the status quo," he said. "They sent us here to bring change. We owe it to them to deliver."
The Collins-Nelson group is hoping to bring the measure's cost down to the $800 billion range, though they were working from the $885 billion measure that came to the floor — ignoring the more than $50 billion in add-ons added over the past three days. A recalculated cost for a popular plan to award a $15,000 homebuyer tax credit pushed the overall price tag to $937 billion.
On the Senate floor, Democrats continued to flex the muscle of their expanded 58-41 majority, easily killing efforts by GOP conservatives to replace the bill with versions containing more tax cuts and less spending.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Obama's vanquished rival for the White House, said that public opinion was shifting in the GOP's favor as he advanced a $421 billion plan, less than half the White House-backed measure. It lost 57-40.
McCain's plan contained a one-year cut in the payroll tax, which would help all wage-earners, as well as reductions in the two lowest income tax brackets that would benefit only those who earn enough to pay income taxes.
Another proposal, by Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., was designed to reduce mortgage rates to as low as 4 percent for millions of homeowners. It was defeated on a vote of 62-35.
Despite their numbers, many Democrats, including newly elected freshmen such as Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Udall of Colorado, want to see less long-term spending and more items directly related to job creation.
And while polls show Obama is popular and the public supports recovery legislation, Republicans have maneuvered in the past several days to identify and ridicule relatively small items in the bill.