With the Senate's passage of their version of the stimulus bill, now it is up to the House and Senate to hammer out a plan that bridges the differences between the two proposals. The House's approach pushes for more spending aid than the Senate's, while the Senate's bill places greater emphasis on tax cuts - $70 billion dollars worth. Will the Senate's three Republican supporters of the bill - Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Arlen Specter - bolt at attempts by the liberal wing of House Democrats to restore the more than $108 billion in spending provisions cut by the Senate? Will the House pass the Senate's proposed dispersal of the $87 billion that both bills allocate, but in very different ways, for Medicaid?
Clearly there is tough work ahead for Congress to get President Obama the bicameral agreement he wants on his desk Monday. On top of the two houses' divergent philosophies regarding spending and tax cuts, liberal House members are not budging on the $40 billion slash to state aid that the Senate made - funds that House Democrats feel are essential to jumpstarting the economy. And its not just partisan ideologies that stand in the way of an agreement, but also conflicting state interests and the opinion of a number of House Democrats that the bill is still too small to be effective.
In a conversation I had with Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) , the Congressman stated that he felt that the right number for the stimulus should be $1.6-1.7 trillion - double what is on the table. He also defended some of the programs that have been attacked, such as honeybee research. To underscore the point, Nadler also harkened back to a classic whipping boy of federal spending skeptics-research into the sex life of the tsetse fly-which Nadler defended as key to malaria eradication.
In order to push Congress to reach an agreement swiftly and not get bogged down in a quagmire of arguments back and forth over the merits of individual provisions of the bill, President Obama is wise to take his case directly to the American people through town hall meetings given that he can draw on his wealth of popularity. While President Bush tried this same approach, and failed, in 2005 in his efforts to convince the American people to back his plan for the privatization of Social Security, Bush's town hall meetings were staged affairs with Republican supporters rounded up to attend the meetings. President Obama's recent town hall meetings are the real deal - taking place in areas that voted for John McCain and all appearances suggest that they were not staged with questions or supporters.
However, ultimately it is up to House and Senate Democrats to come together on the bill and not lose the support of the three Senate Republicans who provided the key critical swing votes needed to get the Senate bill passed and who are the lynch pin to Congress striking a deal. Now is not the time to haggle but rather to bring swift action and bolster the confidence of the American people. The bill might not contain everything that individual Congress members and the American public want, but with 11 million Americans out of work, millions more facing the loss of their homes and close to $50 million people without health insurance, the time to act is now.