WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's Democratic Senate allies wrestled late Friday with a tentative deal that could set the stage for a quick vote on a $780-billion economic stimulus package.
Under pressure from the White House and surging job losses, Democrats met behind closed doors to assess the plan, hatched by a group of swing-vote colleagues to gain support for the package from even a handful of Republicans.
"We are moving towards an agreement," said the number two Democrat, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, while Tennessee Republican Bob Corker told CNN the emerging deal "is going to pass."
Details were elusive, but a Senate aide who requested anonymity said the proposal would pare what began the day as a $937-billion package down to roughly $780 billion -- if Democrats agreed to make the cuts.
"It's a big step forward. We hope for a vote. We ought to get this done," Democratic Senator John Kerry told reporters.
Reaction from the White House, where Obama set a February 16 deadline for Congress to deliver him a stimulus package, was not available -- chief of staff Rahm Emanuel left Senate talks without comment.
But Obama, seeking a victory after early setbacks in his young presidency, had ramped up pressure tactics on wavering lawmakers, stressing grim jobs news and planning to take his case to swing-vote senators' home states.
"It is inexcusable and irresponsible to get bogged down in distraction and delay while millions of Americans are being put out of work," Obama said. "The situation could not be more serious."
Labor Department data showed the US unemployment rate surged in January to 7.6 percent, the highest since 1992, while the nearly 600,000 jobs lost was the worst such number since 1974.
"We're not in a depression," Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid warned colleagues as they opened a fifth day of deliberations. "We're not there, but we've got to do something to turn this around or we will be."
Obama planned to take two campaign-style trips next week, to Indiana and Florida, looking to highlight the crushing human toll of rising unemployment, as well as a primetime press conference to pressure lawmakers.
Among his key goals: win over the handful of Republicans needed so that the chamber's 58 Democrats can count on the 60-vote majority needed to override any parliamentary delaying tactics.
"I hope they share my sense of urgency and draw the same, unmistakable conclusion: the situation could not be more serious, these numbers demand action," Obama said. "It is time for Congress to act."
At the dawn of the debate's fifth day, Reid had suggested a possible compromise would yield a vote on the package between 5:00 and 7:00 pm (2200-0000 GMT), but Republicans leveled renewed attacks on the bill as bloated and lacking sufficient tax cuts to jump-start the economy.
Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell seized on recent public opinion polls showing a drop in support for the overall package, saying: "The more the American people learn about this bill, the less they like it.
"Putting another one trillion dollars on the nation's credit card isn't something we should do lightly," he added. "We need to get a stimulus. But more importantly, we need to get it right."
Senate passage would trigger a "conference" with the House of Representatives to craft a compromise between their rival bills, followed by a new round of voting in each chamber to send the final legislation to Obama, who has set a mid-February deadline.
Democrats were still piling pressure on Republicans to join them, a hard sell after not one Republican voted in favor last week when the House approved its version.