As Senate Takes Up Stimulus Debate, How Many Billions Are Enough?

At $888 billion, the stimulus package could get even larger as Democrats try to win some GOP support.

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The intensifying showdown over an economic stimulus bill shifts to the Senate, where a humongous proposal—nearly $888 billion, and larger than the House-passed version—carries huge political stakes for President Barack Obama.

Senators, whether liberal or conservative, Democratic or Republican, agree on one thing: In the coming days, a stimulus measure is likely to be approved.

Although Obama has stated he'd like 80 votes in the Senate, no doubt the former junior senator from Illinois would settle for far fewer. As senators prepare to debate a stimulus package, Democrats believe they can rely on 58 votes, one shy of the 59 they need to thwart a Republican filibuster that would derail the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Normally, it takes 60 votes to stop a filibuster, but with one vacancy stemming from the contested Senate race in Minnesota, the bar is lower.

"I believe we have the votes," was the prediction last week from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley. It came a week into Obama's presidency, on a day that he took the extraordinary step of coming to the Capitol to court GOP lawmakers.

The rare visit from a sitting president failed to move even one House Republican—none voted for the stimulus—but the Senate is a different animal. With today's breakdown of 56 Democrats, 41 Republicans, and 2 independents, little stands to move without at least some level of bipartisan support.

One conservative, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, signaled that he won't vote for a stimulus because, in his view, it is too much government, too much spending, and too little stimulative spending. But he anticipates Senate approval of the bill nonetheless. He expects a few Republicans will end up signing on.

Democrats envision support from each of their members, as well as independent Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernard Sanders of Vermont, bringing the number to 58. If they pick up just one of the likely moderate GOP suspects, whether Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins of Maine or Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, they'll pass a stimulus.

But even if expectations hold, the price tag for the final package—and its exact composition—remain in flux. The House passed an $819 billion stimulus Wednesday on a 244-to-188 vote. Eleven Democrats, 10 of them Blue Dogs who hail from conservative districts and hate piling on to the national debt, broke ranks and joined Republicans in opposition.

One of the leading architects of the House stimulus, Democratic Rep. David Obey, chair of the Appropriations Committee, complained leading up to the vote that one Republican leader told GOP lawmakers to behave "like 1,000 mosquitoes to harass the majority."

And so Republicans did, heeding House Minority Leader John Boehner's dictate: "We can't borrow and spend our way to prosperity." Republicans sought tax relief, not billions in new spending. They argued that the private sector, not Uncle Sam, should create jobs and urged cash-strapped states to tighten their belts. All the while, they cautioned that more than a trillion in new debt—the $819 billion package, plus interest costs to borrow the money—would be an albatross around the necks of future generations.

Though Republicans lost the House vote, their message machine may be working. A new poll by Gallup found only 52 percent of Americans favor a stimulus. Some 37 percent were opposed, while 11 percent had no opinion.

Democrats, still pushing a massive safety net for an economy that appears to be in free fall, are banking on other numbers to advance their case, starting with Obama's approval rating, 68 percent, and the jobless rate, which is at 7.2 percent and growing alarmingly fast.

Arguing that the economy has not been in such dire straits since the Great Depression, they underscore that states have a raft of shovel-ready projects to rebuild infrastructure and put people back to work and that investments are needed to make the United States less dependent on foreign oil. Additionally, they want to help those hit hardest by the ongoing economic turmoil.