WASHINGTON, Feb. 9, 2009 -- The Senate voted 61-36 today to close debate and move forward with a gargantuan stimulus package meant to kick-start the moribund economy with $838 billion in one-time spending and tax credits.
The bill could pass Tuesday, but cleared a key procedural hurdle today with help from three Republicans and ailing Democrat Ted Kennedy, who voted for the first time this year.
Kennedy, D-Mass., who suffers from brain cancer, returned to the Capitol for the first time since he had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance after suffering a mild seizure just after President Obama's inauguration last month.
"I returned to the Senate today to do all I can to support our president and his plan to get our country back on track. We face a historic crisis and must act quickly, boldly and responsibly to enable our economy to begin growing again in Massachusetts and across America," Kennedy said in a paper statement.
Democrats will need the senior senator from Massachusetts again Tuesday, when there is another 60-votes-needed motion, and they will have to be able to break the Republican filibuster after the bill is reconciled with what passed the House.
Those votes could come later this week, depending on how the conference goes -- and whether the Republicans who supported the bill today still support it after Democrats change it in conference later this week.
The bill won't pass the Senate until Tuesday, but Democratic congressional leaders tell ABC News that House, Senate and White House negotiators already began meeting today, starting discussion on how to resolve the differences between the bills passed by the House and Senate.
The early discussions are a recognition the clock is running out on Obama's President's Day deadline, and this will be a long and difficult negotiation.
The conference committee will be a small one, likely to include only the leadership and the chairman of the key committees.
For the Democrats, it will be Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus of Montana, Appropriations Committee chairman Dan Inouye of Alaska, House Financial Services Committee chairman Barney Frank and House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey.
The Republican troika that crafted the compromise -- Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- won't be there, but their presence will be felt. If the bill changes much, Democrats will lose their support and, therefore, will not be able to pass it in the Senate.
"I feel very strongly that the House simply cannot reinsert the wasteful expenditures that don't create jobs and do nothing to help turn the economy around," Collins told ABC News today. "If the conference report diverges greatly, then I would not be able to support it."
House Democrats will fight hard to restore the two biggest cuts in the plan made by the moderates:
$40 billion reduction in the so-called Fiscal Stability Fund for the states;
$16 billion in school construction that was eliminated.
House Democrats (and many of their Senate brethren) argue that these cuts are an especially bad idea, because this money would work directly to create or save jobs. Without the money, the argument goes, state governments will be forced to layoff more workers and make cuts that undo much of the impact of the stimulus bill.
Collins has rejected these arguments, pointing out there's still a lot of money in here for the states.
"The states are going to receive more than $200 billion as a result of our compromise, $200 billion," Collins told ABC News. "That is all new funding. It is new money for the states. So the states are going to receive much needed assistance from our bill, but there is a limit to how much the states can spend wisely in a short period of time."