Bennet, Udall part of group weighing cuts to Senate stimulus package

Newly appointed Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, right, greets voters at an open house Jan. 25 at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Bennet is part of a group of centrist senators working on a compromise stimulus bill.
Newly appointed Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, right, greets voters at an open house Jan. 25 at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Bennet is part of a group of centrist senators working on a compromise stimulus bill. (Photo/Ernest Luning)

Colorado’s two freshman senators, both Democrats, are part of a bipartisan group that spent Thursday forging a proposal to trim up to $100 billion in spending from the economic stimulus bill in hopes of winning support from moderate Republicans and Democrats who have complained the package devotes too much money to programs that won’t create jobs fast enough.

“The American people are expecting this to be a recovery bill, not a Christmas list,” said Sen. Michael Bennet Thursday evening between votes on the bill.

Bennet and Sen. Mark Udall are part of a “loose collection” — numbered at roughly 20 senators — organized by Sen. Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, looking at cuts that would strip funding for education, mass transit and aid to struggling states from the $937 billion Senate version of the bill. House Democrats passed an $819 billion version of the bill last week without a single Republican vote.

“There’s a shared feeling that we need to make sure that what’s contained in the bill really is stimulative to the economy,” Bennet said, noting that “different people have different views what that means.”

The Senate suspended work Thursday night after voting down a series of changes to the bill, including the defeat Wednesday night of a Republican-sponsored amendment that would have stripped all spending from the bill, leaving only tax cuts. That proposal, by Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, won the support of all but four Senate Republicans.

The ratio of spending to tax cuts currently in the bill — about two-thirds to one-third — is “roughly the right mix,” Bennet said. “But I do think there have been some suggestions made over the last week to take some items out of the bill that don’t appear to be truly stimulative, that are better left to the appropriation process. I think we should listen to that.”

Bennet wouldn’t speculate how many Republicans might join a compromise bill. “From the country’s perspective, the more bipartisan the bill is, the better,” he said. “But I also don’t think it can be compromised in its fundamental figures.”

“We’re going to stop legislating tonight and come back tomorrow,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday night. “The main reason I look forward to tomorrow is because there are a number of Democratic senators working with Republican senators. … We all need to take a look at the work done by the negotiators.”

“We’re just trying to figure out whether there’s something that could be put together that will achieve the president’s goals and win passage out of the Senate,” Bennet said. Under Senate rules, 60 votes are required to bring legislation to a vote and bypass a threatened Republican filibuster. Democrats hold a 58-41 margin in the Senate, including two independent lawmakers who caucus with the majority.

“(The stimulus bill) mostly stacks up well,” Bennet said. “There are a few — very, very small amount of things — that would be better left to the appropriations process, not to this bill.”

That’s a point worth emphasizing — that the cuts under consideration by the moderate group aren’t necessarily going away forever; they just might not be part of the stimulus bill.

A list of nearly $80 billion worth of proposed cuts prepared by Nelson’s staff for the centrist alliance, obtained by Talking Points Memo, describes many favorite Democratic proposals on the block. The biggest proposed cut was nearly $40 billion from the State Stabilization Fund, direct cash to states facing massive budget deficits.

“Clearly, we need to provide some help to the states,” Udall told The Denver Post’s Michael Riley, “but it has to be done in ways that will create jobs and not solely fill the holes in state budgets.”

The senators were also considering $13 billion — more than half the amount in the House bill — in cuts to IDEA funding for special education and Title I education funding targeted to economically disadvantaged schools. In addition, cuts could include more than one-third of the $2.6 billion originally allocated for energy efficiency and renewable energy and $4.5 billion from a loan-guarantee program for energy-efficient technology.

A spokesman for Nelson disputed the list’s relevance on Thursday, calling it an early, working draft, but also underlined the drastic nature of spending cuts under consideration. “They’re looking at further cuts in addition to what you see on that,” a Nelson spokesman told Talking Points Memo’s Elana Schor, referring to the memo. The spokesman also said the group was considering cuts “closer to $100 billion” but wouldn’t go into specifics.

Bennet’s spokesman also declined to predict which cuts might win Bennet’s favor and which might be deal-breakers. “He’s going to go to the mat for any investments that will create jobs and get our economy moving again,” Michael Amodeo said Thursday afternoon.

A blogger at Open Left did some digging and identified 16 members of the informal Collins-Nelson coalition, including 11 Democrats and five Republicans, but also noted accounts of as many as 18 or 20 senators in negotiations. “It’s not a very formal group,” Bennet said Thursday evening.

Here’s Open Left’s list:

Evan Bayh (Ind.)
Michael Bennett (Colo.)
Kent Conrad (N.D.)
Mary Landrieu (La.)
Joe Lieberman (Conn.)
Clarie McCaskill (Mo.)
Ben Nelson (Neb.)
Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.)
Mark Warner (Va.)
Jim Webb (Va.)
Mark Udall (Colo.)

Susan Collins (Maine)
Mel Martinez (Fla.)
Olympia Snowe (Maine)
Arlen Specter (Pa.)
George Voinovich (Ohio)

The Senate resumes debate at 10 a.m. EDT, 8 a.m. Colorado time. Watch the show here.

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