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Stimulus struggle hints at a party showdown

Republicans and Democrats each held a firm line, foreshadowing tougher struggles ahead.

February 15, 2009|Janet Hook

WASHINGTON — The monthlong struggle over the stimulus plan left behind a smoking battlefield of partisanship, but it also set the stage for a political collision on a scale seldom seen in Washington -- a showdown on a succession of even more divisive issues that could shadow the future of the two major parties.

Against the background of the worst economic crisis in three-quarters of a century, Congress passed the $787-billion economic recovery bill without a single GOP vote in the House, and only three Republican votes in the Senate, the bare minimum to avoid a paralyzing filibuster. Economists across the political spectrum widely agree that some sort of federal action on an unprecedented scale is urgently needed.

In effect, the Republicans seemed to bet the future on a daring gambit: By unflinchingly opposing a popular president on the issue Americans care most about, they apparently hope to place responsibility for reviving the economy squarely on Obama's back.

If his prescriptions fail -- or succeed, but carry unwelcome side effects such as inflation or higher taxes -- the GOP could say "We told you so" and bid for a return to power. If the president succeeds, or if the economy remains mired but voters decide Republicans placed partisan gamesmanship ahead of the public interest, the result could be long-term trouble for the party -- especially its conservative core, which has shaped the present strategy.

Democrats, meantime, displayed an unwonted level of unity with a calculation of their own: that voters would credit them with championing the idea of bipartisanship and not hold it against them if they did not produce it. With the stimulus they used their solid majority to roll over House Republicans, and in the Senate they yielded no more than was necessary to garner three crucial GOP votes.

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Higher stakes

If Democrats won the opening battle on the stimulus plan, the outcome of the war lies in tougher struggles just ahead: First is Obama's plan -- promised for this week -- to use the government to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure. Next he is to follow up on a blueprint for resuscitating the financial system, a task that is expected to require vast new amounts of taxpayer dollars to help deeply unpopular banks and Wall Street financial institutions.

Still further down the road lies the president's promise to tackle such huge and controversial issues as healthcare, climate change and energy.

On each of those issues, the stakes will probably be higher because of the polarization displayed on the stimulus bill.

"It is not a good omen," said G. Calvin Mackenzie, a scholar of the presidency at Colby College in Maine. "Pulling in Republican votes [on health and energy initiatives] will be as hard as what he's facing now. They worked the Hill, they tried open hands to the Republicans, and still couldn't get the votes."

A senior administration official was optimistic that future legislative battles will be more bipartisan and open because other issues will not require the fast-track, urgent action needed for the economic recovery bill.

Calling Republicans' strategy "unsustainable," the official warned of political risks that GOP leaders will run if they are as unyielding on other Obama initiatives as they were on the stimulus.

"Republican leaders forced members to vote against their districts and to reject hundreds of billions in tax cuts," said the official, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss administration strategy publicly.

"They used up a lot of chits," he said.

Most Republicans took no hand in crafting the enormous bill, brushing aside Democratic concessions such as including more tax cuts than Obama wanted, cutting back expansion of access to Medicaid to help the jobless, and other bows to GOP priorities.

But Republican leaders expressed satisfaction with their decision to make the stimulus plan an almost entirely Democratic formulation.

"There is a high level of comfort among House and Senate Republicans with where we are politically on this issue," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Whatever the ultimate outcome, the debate upended many Washington assumptions about what the Obama era would be like. Many political analysts expected Republicans to be cowed by the new president's popularity and loath to oppose him aggressively at a moment of crisis. They were not.

Some Democrats worried that Obama would have trouble keeping his own troops in line, as past Democratic Presidents Carter and Clinton did when Congress was controlled by their own party. He did not.

Some Democrats were also uncertain whether Obama's talk about bipartisanship would keep him from playing hardball. It did not.

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