WASHINGTON – The Senate Democratic leader expressed optimism Friday about prospects for a massive economic recovery package, though a Republican colleague said she was feeling less encouraged. President Barack Obama used the cudgel of his office — and the latest dire jobless numbers — to challenge lawmakers to act swiftly.
On Capitol Hill, centrists from both parties scrambled to cut the massive, $900-billion-plus price tag of the package in hopes of making it more palatable to Republicans. On the flip side of the bipartisan effort, Obama sharpened his rhetoric in challenging the GOP to back the measure, arguing that last November voters rejected "partisan posturing," and "the same tried and failed approaches."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada reflected the fierce sense of urgency among Democrats and the White House amid the party's fear that Republicans were turning public opinion against the costly bill.
"The world is waiting to see what we're going to do in the next 24 hours," Reid said on the Senate floor, citing the bleaker economic picture.
A small group of moderates from both parties were negotiating in hopes of cutting up to $100 billion from Obama's plan. The latest version had ballooned to $937 billion on the Senate floor, with further add-ons possible during a long day of votes Friday.
Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, was working with Democrats to cut back the measure's $340 billion tax section by perhaps $25 billion, an aide said.
Susan Collins, R-Maine — a central figure in talks over cutting back the measure's spending items — said she was less optimistic of the chances of reaching an agreement with Reid than she was earlier in the day.
Obama made his case anew at the White House.
"These numbers demand action," said Obama, who plans to campaign for the bill in Indiana and Florida next week. "It is inexcusable and irresponsible for any of us to get bogged down in distraction, delay or politics as usual while millions of Americans are being put out of work."
The efforts came as new government figures showed recession-battered employers eliminated 598,000 jobs in January, the most since the end of 1974. The unemployment rate rose to 7.6 percent.
Obama said he hoped Congress members would react to "the single worst month of job loss in 35 years."
"I hope they share my sense of urgency and draw the same unmistakable conclusion: The situation could not be more serious," Obama said Friday. He pledged to work with lawmakers to refine the measure but said that "broadly speaking, the package is the right size."
Earlier, Reid commended the work of the centrist lawmakers and said progress has been made since Thursday night. He said a vote on the Senate bill by Friday evening was possible.
Collins Friday morning circulated a roster proposing $88 billion worth of net cuts from the measure. She proposed eliminating money in the bill for K-12 education while boosting funding for Pentagon operations, facilities and procurement by $13 billion.
The universe of potential GOP votes seemed to shrink to just three: Collins, Snowe and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Democrats wield a 58-41 majority, meaning they need at least two Republicans to achieve the 60 votes needed to advance the bill past procedural hurdles.
A complication is the health of Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who hasn't returned to the Senate since suffering a seizure on Inauguration Day.
Collins has been working with Ben Nelson, D-Neb. Both met separately with Reid Friday.
He added: "Putting another $1 trillion on the nation's credit card isn't something we should do lightly. We need to get a stimulus. But more importantly, we need to get it right."
Obama pleaded with House Democrats on Thursday night to reject delaying tactics and political gamesmanship and work with the Senate to get a bill. In the campaign-like speech, the president also ridiculed Republican criticism of the legislation.
"We can't embrace the losing formula that says only tax cuts will work for every problem we face; that ignores critical challenges like our addiction to foreign oil, or the soaring cost of health care, or falling schools and crumbling bridges and roads and levees," Obama said at the retreat in Williamsburg, Va.
If a compromise on trimming the bill can't be reached — 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. He expressed confidence he has the 60 votes needed to press it through if need be.