WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama predicted a “difficult next few days” as the Democratic-led U.S. Senate on Monday opened debate on a nearly $900 billion economic stimulus package amid broad Republican opposition.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada aimed to push the package of tax cuts and new federal spending through the chamber by Friday — after lawmakers vote on a stack of amendments offered by members of both parties.
These votes were to begin on Tuesday. The amendments seemed certain to ignite partisan fireworks but looked unlikely to torpedo the overall package, which Obama says will help fight the worst U.S. economic crisis since The Great Depression.
“We’re not trying to prevent a package from passing. We’re trying to reform it,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told a Capitol Hill news conference.
The House passed a somewhat different version of the stimulus legislation last week without any Republican support.
Senate Democrats will need at least two Republican votes to clear possible procedural roadblocks in the 100-member Senate, but they expect to get them.
Once the Senate passes its bill, negotiators from the two chambers will seek to resolve differences and then send a final bill to Obama to sign into law. The president has said he wants such legislation by the middle of the month.
Senate Republicans said they were ready to fight to put more emphasis on tax cuts and less on new spending.
The Senate bill contains $342 billion (240.5 billion pounds) in temporary tax breaks and more than $545 billion in spending to total about $887 billion.
Spending proposals include measures to upgrade education and health care, bolster energy programs, rebuild crumbling roads and bridges and provide job training.
At the White House, Obama said he expected a “difficult next few days” as the Senate wrangles over the bill.
“What we can’t do is let various modest differences get in the way of the overall package moving forward swiftly,” he said. “We can put America back to work.”
But McConnell said the package can be trimmed and should be aimed initially at easing record home foreclosures, which have largely been blamed for the deepening recession.
Republicans suggested it should include a provision that would drive mortgage rates as low as 4 percent, arguing that this could both entice buyers into the moribund housing market and lower borrowing cost for existing homeowners.
McConnell denounced proposed “buy American” restrictions that would require iron, steel and manufactured goods used in infrastructure projects — like building roads and bridges —
to be produced in the United States.
“I don’t think we ought to use a measure that is supposed to be ‘timely, temporary and targeted’ to set off trade wars,” he said.
Many Republicans and some Democrats have complained that some provisions in the bill, like $50 million to promote the arts, would not stimulate the economy and are little more than a liberal wish list.
Some of these items, such as $75 million for smoking prevention programs, have been dropped. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the remaining items that have drawn criticism amount to less than 1 percent of the entire package.
While Obama is open to some changes, “he’s satisfied that we have the basis of a proposal that will save or create 3 million to 4 million jobs and that the American people can be confident about,” Gibbs said.
In opening Senate debate, Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said, “We must act boldly or we will face dire consequences.”
Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, the panel’s ranking Republican, agreed on the need for speed — but with caveats.
“Congress should take quick but sharply focussed action,” he said. “We should not, however, rush headlong into fiscal commitments that haunt us for years to come.”
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Donna Smith; Editing by Vicki Allen