By Sasha Issenberg, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of senators worked into the night to slash as much as $100 billion from a Democratic economic stimulus package with hopes of fashioning a compromise bill that could win enough Republican votes for passage.
The Senate adjourned tonight without a deal and planned to try again Friday to pass a bill. As he awaited a final Senate vote, President Obama admonished Republicans for standing in the way of legislation for which he once had hopes of winning broad bipartisan support.
At a campaign-style speech to Energy Department employees, Obama directly rebuked Republican fiscal dogma even as a spokesman said he continued to welcome the minority party's input. "We can't delay and we can't go back to the same worn-out ideas that led us here in the first place," Obama said. "Let me be clear: those ideas have been tested, and they have failed."
"The time for talk is over. The time for action is now," Obama added, challenging lawmakers in both parties to "rise to this moment."
The stimulus package appeared to be following an Obama-mandated schedule that would have a bill ready for his signature before Congress leaves for its President's Day recess on Feb. 14.
But its itinerary would not represent the departure from traditional lawmaking the new president had promised. The bill did not win a single Republican vote in the House last week, and in the Senate, a small cadre of centrists sanded off the coarse edges to create a product just smooth enough to appeal to members of both parties.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina used Obama's own campaign slogan to mock his pledges of bipartisanship. "If this is the change we can believe in," Graham said on the Senate floor, "America's best days are behind her."
The balance of power sat with a rolling assemblage of Senate moderates, led by Maine Republican Susan Collins and Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson, who worked in consultation with the White House as they met throughout the day in a Senate office building.
Their goal was to cut as much as $100 billion from a bill that had blossomed to more than $900 billion as it moved through the Senate. Aiming to keep their version smaller than the House's $819 billion package of new spending and tax cuts, the senators worked its way through a target list heavy on core Democratic priorities, including education funding and aid to states.
Collins told reporters that Obama, whom she met privately on Wednesday, had made a "strong case" for a package of about $800 billion -- a figure that Obama also endorsed aboard Air Force One last night.
Republican foes, however, say the bill is far too costly and includes too many questionable projects that will not create jobs quickly.
"As I have explained to people in that group, they cannot hold the president of the United States hostage," Majority Leader Harry Reid said. "If they think they're going to rewrite this bill and Barack Obama is going to walk away from what he is trying to do for the American people, they've got another thought coming."
At the same time, the White House girded to defend its priorities more aggressively than he had since his inauguration two weeks ago, scheduling Obama's first prime-time press conference for Monday night. Today, he published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post portraying the congressional votes as a continuation of last year's presidential campaign.
"I reject these theories," Obama wrote of Republicans' reliance on tax cuts and aversion to sweeping action on healthcare and alternative energy, "and so did the American people when they went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change."
Obama's return to campaign mode was met with the reappearance of an old antagonist. Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican whom Obama defeated for the presidency, offered his party's flagship alternative: a collection of tax cuts far less costly than the Democratic package.
MCain's $421 billion proposal -- which called for cutting income taxes and lowering corporate tax rates -- failed today, as did a series of other Republican amendments, along party lines.
"If you believe this is a good process to spend $800 billion, we're on different planets," Graham, a close McCain ally, told a Democratic leader during the floor debate. "We're making this up as we go. If this is a good process, why are 16 senators meeting around the corner trying to figure out how to keep this thing from stinking?"
A bill that passes the Senate will be referred to a conference committee so it can be reconciled with the House version and returned to each chamber for approval. Republicans said that the composition of the House-Senate committee would be the next test of Democratic seriousness about reaching any sort of consensus.
"When it gets to conference, it needs to be a real negotiation among Democrats and Republicans," said Ron Bonjean, a former aide to Republican leaders in both the House and Senate. "The [House] Speaker and Reid will need to appoint Democrats who really want to negotiate and not rubber-stamp it."
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.