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Bill to Kick-Start the Economy Falters as Senate Debate Starts

Legislation: With votes for passage lacking, leaders of both parties talk of a compromise. House Republicans balk at the idea.


WASHINGTON — The Senate opened a long-awaited debate Tuesday on a bill to stimulate the economy, but legislators quickly conceded that neither party had the votes to pass its preferred version of the measure to cut taxes and help the unemployed.

Hoping to sidestep a messy floor fight, Senate leaders of both parties proposed to begin negotiations with the House and the Bush administration on the bill's final shape--without even waiting for the Senate to finish work on its version.

But House Republicans were not enthusiastic about that plan. House GOP leaders were "leery of a summit," a top aide said after they met Tuesday to discuss the idea. One of the House leaders, Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said flatly that he would not begin negotiations until after the Senate has confronted the political risks and challenges of approving its own bill.

That's particularly difficult in the narrowly divided Senate, composed of 50 Democrats, 49 Republicans and one independent. It generally takes at least 60 votes to pass a bill in the Senate because that many votes are needed should it become necessary to end a filibuster.

Lawmakers are coming under increasing pressure to act on some kind of economic stimulus package and to wrap up work on a separate measure to beef up aviation security before leaving town next week for Thanksgiving. President Bush discussed those issues with top congressional leaders at a meeting Tuesday morning, and reiterated his request for action as he departed the White House later in the day for his Crawford, Texas, ranch, where today he continues talks with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

Bush said that Congress "must work day and night to get an airline security bill to my desk. . . . I hope the Senate [also] will be able to move [an economic stimulus] bill quickly and to get it into conference and work out the differences."

On the airline security issue, the House and Senate are stalemated over whether passenger and baggage screeners should be federal employees. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) proposed a compromise Tuesday that would federalize screeners at the 31 busiest airports while giving the administration the flexibility to permit smaller airports to use public or private employees for the task.

Some lawmakers expressed concern that Hutchison's proposal would provide a different standard for airport security, while others praised it as a "starting point" for a compromise. Negotiators are scheduled to meet again today.

The economic stimulus bill before the Senate would pour about $67 billion into the economy in 2002. That includes $30 billion in additional spending--mostly for extended benefits and health insurance subsidies for the unemployed--and $37 billion in tax cuts for individuals and businesses.

That contrasts with the $100-billion bill passed by the House, which is devoted almost exclusively to tax cuts, with most of those benefits going to businesses.

Republicans have argued that the Democratic-backed Senate bill would spend too much, cut taxes too little and includes too many provisions unrelated to the economy, such as subsidies for agriculture, Amtrak and New York employers hit by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he favored immediate negotiations with House leaders and White House officials on a compromise because that would avoid a divisive, protracted battle on the Senate floor. "The time for statements or positioning, I think, is over," Lott said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was receptive to the proposed talks because it would likely mean he would have to concede less than if he had to compromise twice--once to get the bill through the Senate and a second time in House-Senate conference.


Times staff writers Richard Simon and Edwin Chen contributed to this report.

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