Will The Stimulus Face A Quagmire In The Senate?

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THE STASH JANUARY 31, 2009

Will The Stimulus Face A Quagmire In The Senate?

The Times has a small but extremely important detail in its stimulus story today:

At a strategy session on Thursday with Mr. Obama’s top economic adviser, Lawrence H. Summers, Democrats and the White House agreed to allow full-throated debate on the stimulus in the Senate rather than try to jam the bill through with a small margin of victory. At a minimum, Democrats need at least two Senate Republicans if they are to muster the 60 votes needed to pre-empt any filibuster.

It's tough to overstate the significance of this. I'm not saying it's the wrong decision--you can hardly blame Obama for not wanting to stir up a ton of partisan bitterness in his first major legislative push, and limiting debate would almost certainly have done that. But it's a risky move--not so much because it risks derailing the stimulus, but because it's going to require a lot of Democratic senators to cast some tough votes.

As one Senate Republican aide explained it to me last week, the GOP is sure to introduce some politically tricky amendments--like, say, requiring a certain fraction of the money to be spent in the first year, or limiting the amount that can be added to the deficit, or defining "stimulus" in such a way that precludes certain types of longer-term projects. The Democrats will, in most cases, have enough votes to defeat these measures. (And some of them may be substantively constructive, in which case great.) But it will put some Dems on the record taking positions that are unpopular in their home states.

"That'll be big, the amendments could be sticky," the aide told me, which is why he predicted the Senate leadership wouldn't go that route. Good for Harry Reid and the White House for having the guts to defy these expectations. But get ready for some wrenching legislative maneuvering.

--Noam Scheiber

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