WASHINGTON -- The Gang of 18, or whatever they're calling themselves, is dwindling rapidly as today's rare (for the Senate) Friday session threatens to turn into an even rarer Friday night -- or Saturday -- session.
Ohio Republican George Voinovich has bailed out of an effort to find a bipartisan compromise to muscle the bill past GOP opposition. Conservatives like Oklahoma's Tom Coburn are virtually certain to try to filibuster the legislation, so Democrats need to peel off at least two Republicans to get the 60 votes they'd need to move the bill to a final vote and a conference committee with the House -- where it's likely to change even more substantially, with more direct guidance from the White House. (Yes, many progressives want Democratic leader Harry Reid to force the GOP to actually filibuster the bill, but apparently they've decided to try to line up the votes instead.)
But the talks go on. Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson just finished meeting with Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter and Maine Republican Susan Collins in Specter's first-floor Capitol office. They kicked most of their staff out of the meeting. That meeting came right after Nelson met with Democrats to get a sense of how far he could bend to try to bring Specter, Collins and Maine Republican Olympia Snowe on board. It does feel like a deal could be near; the White House -- which has been monitoring the talks -- sent Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's chief of staff, up to the Capitol while the moderates were meeting, though he didn't join them.
"We've continued to talk virtually all day," Nelson said. "When you talk, you make progress, but you don't always have something close to closure."
Specter didn't seem particularly happy to see a small crowd of reporters and photographers camped out in the hallway by his office, tucked away in a corner near the Old Supreme Court Chamber in a part of the building tourists -- or staffers or reporters, for that matter -- rarely visit. "We're not prepared to say much, because anything we say could be prejudicial," he muttered. "So the less we say, the better."
The negotiators say they're still trying to cut the $900 billion stimulus bill down, in large part by cutting programs they think won't help jolt the economy quickly enough. "Each of us believes that it's important to pass a stimulus package, but we want the bill to be effective, and we don't want it to be encrusted with spending that is not stimulative and that does not belong in this package," Collins said. Nelson said the list of what the moderates were or weren't proposing to cut had changed a bunch already today. "There's been a lot of changes (since the morning), back and forth, and new things," he said.
What is or isn't stimulative, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. (Ahem -- that's economically stimulative.) Collins said they were trying to apply a fairly broad standard. "We're looking at whether it creates jobs, how quickly it could be spent, whether it puts money into people's pockets -- those are all tests that we're using now," she told me, when I asked her how she was evaluating the programs the moderates are reportedly trying to cut.
By then, she had wandered out of Specter's office and into an unfamiliar hallway, and she made it pretty clear she wasn't interested in answering any more of my questions about which programs were worth saving. "This is very unfair, because now I'm lost," she said. "So how can I get away from you?" And with that, she escaped up some stairs.