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Stimulus Measure Passes Key Senate Test

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

The Senate voted late today to end a Republican filibuster of President Obama's massive economic stimulus package.

Unidentified Woman: On this vote, the yays are 61, the nays are 36. Three- fifths of the senators duely chosen and sworn, having voted in the affirmative, the motion is agreed to.

BLOCK: Three breakaway Republicans joined all 58 members of the Democratic Caucus, including ailing Senator Ted Kennedy, to move a compromise bill struck late last week towards Senate passage tomorrow. NPR's David Welna has this report.

DAVID WELNA: The Senate spent all last week, including Saturday, debating and amending its nearly $900 billion stimulus package. And if it were up to Senate Republicans they'd keep on debating it indefinitely. But today in Elkhart, Indiana, where unemployment is above 15 percent, President Obama made clear at a town hall meeting that his patience with GOP delaying tactics has run out.

BARACK OBAMA: So we've had a good debate. Now it's time to act. That's why I'm calling on Congress to pass this bill immediately. Folks here in Elkhart and all across America need help right now. They can't afford to keep waiting for folks in Washington to get this done.

WELNA: The president is clearly trying to increase public pressure on Congress to act. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid meanwhile today brandished the threat of foregoing next week's week-long President's Day break to goad his colleagues into action.

HARRY REID: And we can plan and hope all next week to be home so we can be doing things that we can't do on weekends. But if we can't complete this legislation, we'll have to cut into that, and our responsibilities at home will have to be set for some other day. So I'm confident that we can get it done by Friday. There's no reason we can't.

WELNA: But there may, in fact, be a very good reason Congress won't get the stimulus package done by Friday, and it's that House Democrats are not at all happy with the deep cuts their Democratic colleagues in the Senate agreed to in the compromise struck with those few Republican senators. Those cuts could complicate the efforts that have to take place this week to reconcile the Senate's version with the one passed by the House. California Democrat Barbara Boxer said today that she, too, regretted those cuts.

BARBARA BOXER: And I want to send a message to my friends in the House of Representatives. I know how you feel. I know that things were left out of this compromise that you desperately want into this bill. But I will say you should fight for that, but at the end of the day, again, go back to the three options: doing nothing, doing the perfect bill or doing the compromise.

WELNA: Arizona Republican John McCain led efforts to block the bill. By allowing it to move forward, he said, the Senate is committing an act of generational theft.

JOHN MCCAIN: It is increasing spending, increasing the role of government in a draconian and unprecedented fashion, and laying a debt on future generations of Americans of many trillions of dollars.

WELNA: Max Baucus, the Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, reminded McCain there's more in the compromise bill than the government spending.

MAX BAUCUS: My colleagues love tax cuts. This bill cuts taxes by $300 billion.

WELNA: McCain, who voted against both President Bush's tax cuts, had a question for Baucus, who voted for one of them.

MCCAIN: Can I ask the senator for Montana: He does not like tax cuts?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BAUCUS: (unintelligible) tax cuts.

MCCAIN: Good.

WELNA: Baucus, like other Democrats, sought to equate Republicans' resistance to the stimulus package with the tight-fisted, slow-moving response of GOP President Herbert Hoover to the Great Depression.

HERBERT HOOVER: Let us not repeat the dithering of the late 1920s and the early 1930s.

WELNA: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked today whether he and his fellow Republicans might be risking a political backlash by opposing the stimulus.

MITCH MCCONNELL: I think the overwhelming majority of Republicans are very comfortable with where we are on this particular issue.

WELNA: Of greater concern to Democrats this week is whether the three Senate Republicans who've broken with their pack will remain comfortable with whatever is worked out with the House.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.