Obama needs to win over Senate Republicans without losing House Democrats.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Barack Obama held office hours Wednesday. In 15-minute increments in the early afternoon, he met in the Oval Office with senators who want to modify his stimulus bill. Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska talked about removing spending provisions from the bill. He has a tentative list of cuts totaling more than $50 billion that include everything from $122.5 million for new and renovated polar icebreakers to $198 million in military benefits for Filipino veterans of World War II. Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine got her own meeting, as did her GOP Maine colleague Sen. Olympia Snowe, who told Obama the bill didn’t provide stimulus fast enough. Citing a CBO report that said only 12 percent of the appropriated money would be spent in the first year, Snowe told him, “Twelve percent is causing us 100 percent of the headache.”

Obama is taking requests because his stimulus package is having a little trouble in the Senate, where, because the legislation would increase the federal deficit, it requires 60 votes for passage. Nelson and North Dakota’s Kent Conrad, also a Democrat, have both said they would vote against the bill in its current form. A Senate Democratic leadership aide says at least three others are in that camp. So Obama is wheeling and dealing, looking for votes.

Once upon a time, the question about the stimulus package was how many Republican votes it could get in the Senate. The political dynamic has since changed. Last week, when House Republicans voted in unison against the bill, the White House and Democrats said it was a rank act of partisanship. But now that Senate Democrats are voicing their concerns, it undermines that line of attack. More than just partisan Republicans have qualms with the bill, and the critiques are growing. White House officials claim critics are quibbling about only a small portion of the bill, but the debate now revolves around a larger chunk of the bill that Republicans and Democrats claim doesn’t provide stimulus fast enough.

Many Senate Democrats claim that the bill has too many provisions that don’t meet the definition of “timely, targeted, and temporary.” This irritates their House colleagues, in part because it echoes a line House Speaker Nancy Pelosi once used against Republicans in a previous stimulus debate and in part because it echoes the spin Republicans are using against this stimulus bill. Republicans hope to define the bill by its smallest and most absurd provisions even if they are a tiny fraction of its cost. When Democrats also single out those provisions, they are merely “repeating GOP talking points,” as one Democratic House leadership aide put it.

Nelson and Snowe are taking the lead in working on a compromise between Republicans and Democrats. Over the last few days, a group of about 20 senators has been sorting through the bill, trying to find ways to modify its provisions. Conrad, the chairman of the budget committee, is screening all spending to find anything that doesn’t provide stimulus within the first 18 months. Any program that doesn’t meet that test he wants removed, so that the money can be used to help those who are facing foreclosure. Extra money would also create a $15,000 tax credit for middle-class families to buy a home during the 2009 calendar year.

Obama is also reaching out to others. Wednesday morning, he called John McCain, who has offered his own $445 billion stimulus package heavily tilted toward tax cuts. The conversation was short, as Obama reiterated his commitment to working with Republicans, and particularly McCain. McCain said he looked forward to such cooperation, but the conversation was no more productive than that.

The tension for Obama is how far to go in accommodating the Senate without causing too much heartburn among Democrats in the House. House Speaker Pelosi met with OMB Director Peter Orszag and White House economic adviser Larry Summers Tuesday night in her House office and let them know her caucus could go only so far. It would be able to accept some of the tax-cut provisions being added to the Senate bill, like the adjustment that keeps the Alternative Minimum Tax from hitting middle-class families. But House Democrats were not going to see the bill they put together thoroughly undone.

The worry is not so much that Obama will lose the vote on the stimulus bill because of Democratic defections. It’s that his allies in the House and Senate will have to swallow hard to support it, or that the process of getting to yes will be bruising. This will create resistance for the next tough vote Obama asks them to take. If he creates too much trouble for himself, by the end of the year the president’s office hours will have to extend all day long.