Congress, White House seek final deal on stimulus

WASHINGTON Wed Feb 11, 2009 6:00am GMT

WASHINGTON Feb 11 (Reuters) - Congressional negotiators and White House officials met behind closed doors late on Tuesday to try to work out disagreements over spending and tax cuts in an economic stimulus bill that could cost taxpayers around $800 billion.

With President Barack Obama setting a weekend deadline for finishing the complex legislation -- and lawmakers hoping to start a week-long recess then -- the pressure was on to cut deals that would open the way for the Senate and House of Representatives to pass a final compromise.

"We're not there, but we've made a significant amount of progress the last 10 hours," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters after he wrapped up Tuesday's final negotiating session.

Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he hoped an agreement could be reached on Wednesday, but declined to detail the progress made.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a former congressman, joined the discussions on Capitol Hill.

Obama met at the White House with fiscally conservative House Democrats, who told reporters they had received assurances that the administration would work to rein in future spending.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said she hoped all work could be done by the weekend, but noted that some House Democrats were "concerned" about Senate cuts to education and other spending initiatives already approved by the House.

According to one House Democratic aide, the negotiators might be able to come to a quick agreement on the tax-cut part of the bill, but the spending priorities could be more complicated.

Once a deal is brokered by House and Senate leaders, with Obama's blessing, a public meeting of the negotiators will be convened to formally sign off on the bill that would be presented to each chamber for final votes.

The House has passed a bill costing about $820 billion in tax cuts and spending programs, while the Senate's version is a somewhat more expensive $838 billion gambit.

Pelosi says her chamber's legislation would create more jobs at less cost, fulfilling Obama's pledge to create or save up to 4 million jobs through a series of construction and investment projects and tax cuts to put more money in consumers' hands.

But Reid, hamstrung by more difficult Senate procedures, steered a bill through his chamber that cuts out some spending that Republicans objected to.

It also has tax incentives for buying automobiles and houses, which helped attract Republican support, and a one-year fix to a quirk in the tax law that threatens to ensnare the middle class in a tax intended for the richest.

Most Senate Republicans, and all House Republicans, have opposed the bills as written so far and there was little hope among Democrats of forging a truly bipartisan bill that Obama says needs to be enacted quickly to avert a "catastrophe."

Various business groups have thrown their support behind the Democratic-written legislation. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, supports "many of the pro-growth tax initiatives in the bill, as well as the spending-side provisions to provide stimulus, create jobs and get Americans back to work."