Divided, Senate chops stimulus to $780 billion in tentative agreement
Published: Saturday February 7, 2009

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WASHINGTON, (AFP) President Barack Obama's Democratic Senate allies unveiled a pared-down plan to pump at least 780 billion dollars into the ailing US economy and vowed to pass it as next week dawns.

"We're doing everything we can to make sure that this severe recession we're in does not become another Great Depression," Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid said, as all but a handful of Republicans vowed to oppose the deal.

The accord's price tag would be far smaller than the 937 billion dollars previously under consideration, a reduction aimed at winning over elusive Republican support that was entirely absent when the House of Representatives passed its 820-billion-dollar version of the measure last week.

If the measure clears the Senate, both chambers would reconcile their rival bills, and then vote on the resulting final product -- which Obama has said he wants to see on his desk by February 16.

Lawmakers were to resume debate on the measure in a rare Saturday session.

Reid signaled that he believed his 58 Democrats had enough Republican support to secure the 60 votes needed to thwart any parliamentary delaying tactics and said he hoped for a vote "as early as we can next week."

The new compromise measure emerged, under pressure from the White House and ever-grimmer unemployment numbers, from closed-door talks by a group of swing-vote Republicans and Democrats.

"We trimmed the fat, fried the bacon and milked the sacred cows," said Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, a leader of the group.

The final cost could rise to about 800 billion dollars because of various amendments still pending, Senate sources said as Republican foes of the original package quickly trained their guns on the new agreement.

"Most of us are deeply skeptical that this will work, and that level of skepticism leads us to believe that this course of action should not be chosen," said Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Republicans said their calculations put the new bill at roughly 830 billion dollars, plus nearly 350 billion dollars in debt service -- meaning the overall price tag was about 1.2 trillion dollars.

"We're talking about an extraordinarily large amount of money and a crushing debt for our grandchildren," said McConnell.

"If this legislation is passed, it will be a very bad day for America," said Republican Senator John McCain.

At the White House, spokesman Robert Gibbs highlighted catastrophic job loss figures and declared: "We are pleased the process is moving forward and we are closer to getting Americans a plan to create millions of jobs."

Labor Department data showed the US unemployment rate surged in January to 7.6 percent, the highest since 1992, while the nearly 600,000 jobs lost was the worst such number since 1974.

Obama, seeking a political victory after early setbacks in his young presidency, had ramped up pressure tactics earlier on wavering lawmakers, stressing the grim jobs news and planning to take his case to swing-vote senators' home states.

"It is inexcusable and irresponsible to get bogged down in distraction and delay while millions of Americans are being put out of work," Obama said. "The situation could not be more serious."

Obama planned to take two campaign-style trips next week, to Indiana and Florida, looking to highlight the crushing human toll of rising unemployment, as well as hold his first primetime press conference on Monday to pressure lawmakers.

"I hope they share my sense of urgency and draw the same, unmistakable conclusion: the situation could not be more serious, these numbers demand action," Obama said. "It is time for Congress to act."

The following video was posted to WhiteHouse.gov on Feb. 7.

With wire reports.

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