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Q: What’s the best way NOT to stimulate the economy?

- February 6, 2008

A: Send a stimulus bill to the Senate for quick approval.

Playing out on the Senate floor and in the party cloakrooms is a stunning example of why one should never count on the Senate when time is of the essence. The Senate– true to form– has tied itself in knots as the two parties squabble over voting procedures for considering an economic stimulus package.

Although 80 senators voted on Monday to invoke cloture on the motion to proceed to consider the House-passed version of the stimulus bill, GOP senators are insisting on using all 30 hours alloted under the Senate’s Rule 22 for “post-cloture” debate. With me so far? Meanwhile, as the post-cloture clock ticks, Democrats are working to secure 60 votes in anticipation of a Republican filibuster of the substitute stimulus package approved by the Senate Finance Committee. Still with me? At the same time, Republicans are working so sustain 41 Republican votes against this next cloture vote, preferring to offer their own amendment to the package (which might also require 60 votes) or to pass the House stimulus bill endorsed by House party leaders and the president.

The Finance Committee substitute on which Democrats must secure cloture extends tax breaks to wealthier Americans, low-income senior citizens and disabled veterans, extends unemployment benefits, and offers low-income heating assistance, in addition to numerous other add-ons to the House-passed bill. Not surprisingly, given the extension of rebates to a broader set of constituencies, the Democratic package has given pause to more centrist GOP senators who are up for re-election in competitive states and who hail from cold states (Collins and Smith of Maine, Coleman from Minnesota, Smith from Oregon, and possibly Stevens and Murkowski of Alaska). (I can see the regression now, modeling the cloture vote controlling for each state’s average daily temperature in February.) Add in Grassley and that totals (at best) 58 votes for cloture (assuming Hillary and Barack fly in for the pivotal vote currently scheduled for Wednesday night). Meanwhile, the new GOP whip, John Kyl, is working to keep 41 senators in line against the Finance substitute while the Senate minority leader holds out for the right to offer a trimmer GOP amendment to counter the Democratic package and to give cross-pressured GOP moderates something to vote for.

Should the Democrats fail to reach 60 votes for the Finance substitute, will they allow Republicans to offer their own amendment to the House package? It depends on who blinks first. The majority leader on Tuesday “filled the amendment tree,” a Senate procedure that prevents other senators from offering any amendments to the pending bill and amendment on the floor. Unless the Democrats relent, no other amendments would be in order for the stimulus bill. You’re still with me, right?

On the bright side, at least while the Senate is tangled in knots over voting rules for the stimulus bill, the chamber can make progress on the other contentious issue before it, the overhaul of surveillance rules for the government. Perhaps, but only if the GOP consents to moving forward on the so-called FISA bill– which yesterday they refused.

Legislating? Hostage-taking? You be the judge. Let’s just say that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson might have been a tad optimistic– even naive– when he noted that the $150 billion economic stimulus package worked out by President George W. Bush and House leaders was a “rare bipartisan moment” likely to be repeated in the Senate. A rare moment indeed. And not likely to be repeated in the Senate.