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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Through a Glass Darkly

Anybody trying to follow what’s happening in the Senate on the stimulus package today is having a bad case of vertigo. The big news yesterday seemed to be that Senate Dems didn’t have the votes to enact the stimulus legislation that was reported out of its committees, and that was roughly similar to what the House enacted. As a result, a self-designated group of “centrists”–apparently five GOPers and up to 15 Democrats–had convened under the leadership of Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Susan Collins (R-ME) to agree on modifications of the package that would reduce its cost and/or eliminate objectionable “pork.”
Now today, even as details of the Nelson-Collins “agreed-to-cuts” leaks out (TPM seems to have the first copy), Harry Reid has dramatically announced that he has the votes to cut off debate and enact a bill. The question, of course, is “what bill?”, though comments by other Democratic senators suggest that they are not including the Nelson-Collins cuts, much less the sort of larger cuts that Collins undoubtedly wants. And that in turn implies that all or nearly all of the Dems involved in the Nelson-Collins negotiations have been, or can be, convinced to vote for the bigger package (inflated to over $900 billion yesterday when the Senate approved an Isakson amendment to give big tax incentives to home-buyers), and that a couple of Republicans other than Collins (Snowe? Voinovich? Specter?) are on board as well.
If the Nelson-Collins cuts–again, a tentative list, not an agreement, since Collins is insisting on much larger cuts–is somehow in play, it’s worth looking at them in some detail. And the first thing that jumps out at you is that $39 billion of the $79 billion in proposed cuts comes from elimination of a State Fiscal Stabilization Fund.
There have already been some blog posts erroneously describing these proposed cuts as relating purely to “education.” That’s because the Department of Education administers this proposed fund. $15 billion on the chopping block is in the form of “state incentive grants” that are indeed about education (apparently aimed at rewarding states that make progress towards their education goals), but the bigger chunk, $24 billion, is the sole unrestricted money for the states in the entire stimulus package, aimed at discouraging states from laying off workers and cutting programs in a way that would undermine the very purpose of the federal legislation. To be sure, there are other funds in the stimulus package aimed at shoring up specific state-administered programs, particularly Medicaid, but the $24 billion the “centrists” are lopping off is the only truly flexible money.
I would guess that lobbyists for state and local government have figured this out and are raising holy hell about it by now. But the fact that so little is known about the composition of the Nelson-Collins group (as Chris Bowers rightly and angrily points out), and no one outside the Senate seems to know whether these negotiated cuts are in or out of what Reid intends to push on the Senate floor, is a sign of how incredibly confusing the legislative dance has become at this crucial moment.
UPCATEGORY: Democratic Strategist

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