Stimulus bill not dead yet

A Democratic aide insists the Senate will still pass the stimulus bill in time for Congress to wrap up its work on the legislation by next weekend.

By Mike Madden

Published February 4, 2009 11:05PM (EST)

WASHINGTON -- It might not be quite time for opponents of the economic stimulus bill to declare victory, though they must be pretty tempted by the way things are looking.

This morning's Washington Post bannered the news that Senate Democrats don't have 60 votes for the bill right now. The entire city seems to be buzzing about a new Rasmussen poll showing support for the bill has dropped to 37 percent. TV talking heads are bashing the bill, even on MSNBC (which practically declared itself the Obama network not long after the election).

But while the White House and Democrats on Capitol Hill may be fumbling some of the P.R. battle over the bill, all is not lost. Nate Silver looks at polling on the stimulus bill and finds little evidence that the public is actually opposed to it; support has been dropping in the face of Republican gripes about a handful of spending projects in the legislation, but majority opinion hasn't turned against it.

And a Democratic leadership aide tells Salon the bill is still likely to pass the Senate in time for Congress to send it to President Obama to sign before Presidents' Day. "It's going to pass," the aide said, conceding that the chances of getting 80 votes -- as White House aides once hoped for -- have pretty much vanished. "It might not be pretty." Democrats will almost certainly be able to hold their caucus together to support the bill, which means they only need to peel off two or three Republicans to get the 60 votes they'd need to prevent a filibuster. With margins like that, they can negotiate directly with a few targets; they don't need to do wholesale rewrites to persuade huge numbers of GOP lawmakers to get on board. Leaders expect wavering moderate Democrats like Ben Nelson of Nebraska to support the bill in the end, given the stakes for Obama and the country, and they're confident they can whittle the bill down a bit (which shouldn't be too hard, since its price tag has risen to nearly $900 billion). The Post story, reporting that the bill didn't have 60 votes, may have been accurate Tuesday evening, but the aide thinks they'll get there soon.

As for the spin wars, the aide acknowledged that Republicans have gotten traction by bashing small slices of the bill, like money for contraception education or STD screening. "We're talking about 1 percent of the bill," the aide said. "It's much easier to shit on stuff," for Republicans to make the bill sound larded up with pork. Democrats will probably scrub a few more expensive projects out of the legislation in the next few days; already, the Senate knocked out money earmarked for Hollywood. Battles over individual projects may be embarrassing for Democrats, but in the end, they could help produce a bill that a few Republicans feel they can support.

That's not to say things will be easy for the next week or so; the bill could still collapse under an avalanche of criticism, which would be a humiliating defeat for Obama -- and potentially an economic disaster for the country. But in order to have a shot at turning around the economy, the bill doesn't have to pass unanimously. It only has to pass.

Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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