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US lawmakers seek consensus on stimulus

WASHINGTON, Feb 11 – The divided US Congress on Wednesday was to wrestle anew with more than 800 billion dollars in tax cuts and spending in a bid to speed a compromise economic stimulus plan to President Barack Obama.

Democrats who control the Senate and House of Representatives looked to get a final package to Obama by his self-imposed February 16 deadline but were grappling with demands from a fragile coalition needed to pass the bill.

Lawmakers worked to reconcile the House\’s 819-billion-dollar measure and the Senate\’s 838-billion-dollar version of what Obama has labeled emergency legislation to pull the world economy out of a paralyzing recession.

The president, campaigning for the bill at a town-hall stop in an crisis-hit section of Florida, welcomed as "good news" the Senate\’s approval of its plan in a 61-37 vote that touched off the difficult negotiations.

"We\’ve still got to get the House bill and the Senate bill to match up before it gets sent to my desk, so we\’ve got a little more work to do over the next couple of days, but it\’s a good start," said the president.

As the bill\’s fierce Republican foes vowed to fight to the bitter end, leaders of the Democratic majorities in nboth houses said they would work as long as it takes to get a deal and expressed optimism about swift progress.

"The differences we have are very minor," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters, adding that he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hoped to "get a lot of the work done in the next 24 hours."

Outnumbered Republicans, who say the plan is bloated with wasteful government spending and that they would have liked to see significantly more tax cuts, stuck to their guns.

"The president was right to call for a stimulus, but this bill misses the mark. It?s full of waste. We have no assurance it will create jobs or revive the economy," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

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The Senate vote came after a small group of swing-vote senators crafted a smaller alternative to what had ballooned to a 940 billion dollar package, securing support from three moderate Republicans: Maine Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, and Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter.

Their critical support — Democrats can count on 58 votes and need 60 to thwart any parliamentary delaying tactics — may be an obstacle to making major changes to the Senate version of the legislation.

House Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters that he hoped to make changes to the Senate version, but acknowledged concerns in Congress and the Obama White House about vital votes "jumping ship."

Hoyer also said that the House would keep at the compromise talks until there was agreement and left open the possibility of work stretching well into what is scheduled to be a week-long break starting at close of business on Friday.

He also signaled his hope that the House-Senate "conference" further dilutes a "Buy American" clause after Senators softened restrictions that had angered major US trading partners like Canada and the European Union.

Hoyer signaled that Democrats may have a problem with some of the funding stripped from the Senate\’s compromise version, like 14 billion dollars for school construction and 40 billion in direct aid to US states, many of which are facing painful cuts to meet legal bans on running budget deficits.

Obama has said he would like to see some of the education funding return to the bill, which blends tax cuts and government spending to battle the worst downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Asked whether he thought the final bill could swell past 838 billion dollars — which could endanger swing-vote senator support — Hoyer replied: "No, I don\’t."

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