What Inning is It? Debate Over Stimulus Cuts Inches On

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs quipped yesterday that Congress’ stimulus debate was in the “bottom of the fifth” inning. So it’s looking like a long seventh-inning stretch this evening as Senate centrists continue hashing out a package of cuts to the $900-billion-plus package.

Democratic leaders understandably would prefer the focus to be on what’s in the package rather than what’s in line for cuts. But to use another familiar metaphor, Sens. Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Susan Collins (R-ME) have grabbed the wheel of the economic recovery plan with their still-evolving proposal to trim as much as $100 billion from education, mass transit, and other areas. Talking to reporters in the ornate Senate reception room this evening, Collins described the group of centrist senators as pretty far from an agreement.“I don’t know that we can get it done tonight,” Collins said, referencing her desire for “a different approach” that involves “tak[ing] a fresh look, as if we were drafting a bill from scratch [and asking] what would we put in it.”

One suspects the Senate Appropriations Committee — which actually did draft the bill from scratch — might take issue with that approach. But Collins is one of only a handful of Republicans whose stimulus votes are realistically gettable for Democrats, and she said she’s not prepared to vote for the bill as it stands.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), who has participated in the Nelson-Collins stimulus talks, took a pragmatic view. “If this package isn’t improved here, but assurances were given before conference [with the House of Representatives] is completed that additional changes would be made, that’s another possibility.”

At least one of Conrad’s colleagues, Sen. Jon Tester (D-M), said he’s open to leaving some stimulus decisions open until a conference with the House — which would have to occur next week in order to meet the Obama administration’s Presidents Day deadline.

One thing to watch for in the final centrist deal, according to Nelson: a possible restoration of the $25 billion in extra transportation funding that fell two votes short of being added to the stimulus earlier this week.

But while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) vows to keep the Senate working non-stop until the weekend, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) pushes right back, the chances of a breakthrough tonight are dimming. As always, however, we’ll be watching and keeping you posted.