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Republicans lack a party line on economy

Without strong leadership or the political capital to oppose a popular president, the fractured GOP can't agree on options for the economic stimulus package.

January 30, 2009|Mark Z. Barabak and Janet Hook

SAN FRANCISCO AND WASHINGTON — Donald Manzullo, a House Republican from Illinois, has proposed a $5,000 voucher for anyone buying a new car. Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, the Senate GOP leader, favors a temporary suspension of the payroll tax. Jim DeMint, a Republican senator from South Carolina, wants to permanently cut the federal income tax.

As Republicans fight President Obama's gargantuan economic plan, they have plenty of ideas. What they don't have is a party-wide consensus: They can't agree among themselves on the best alternative, or on whether government action is even needed to pull the economy from its nose dive.

The House passed an $819-billion version of the stimulus bill Wednesday without a single Republican voting in favor. Still, Obama and fellow Democrats hope for at least some GOP support in the Senate, where a more collaborative -- and expensive -- bill is taking shape. Many Republican governors, meanwhile, have already begun calculating how to spend their share of any federal bailout.

"There is not a coherent Republican message at this moment," conceded lobbyist Vin Weber, a former GOP House member.

The party's scattershot stance points up two problems facing Republicans after their dismal showing in November's election: Absent a central figure like the president, who speaks for Republicans? And with its image in tatters, how does the GOP oppose Obama without seeming heedlessly partisan, or ignoring the voters' desire for quick action to ease the economic hurt?

For all their uncertainty, many Republicans agree on one thing. "They understand that Obama is enormously popular and resisting him is very dangerous," Weber said.

Where lawmakers stand depends greatly on where they sit.

House Republicans, who face voters every two years, typically represent compact, ideologically cohesive and mostly conservative districts. Senators, whose terms run for six years, are chosen by a much larger electorate and have to weigh a broader set of concerns. That would explain why many Senate Republicans, while expressing concerns about the size of the stimulus package and its ratio of tax cuts to spending, have been more receptive to compromising with Obama than House Republicans.

For their part, the nation's governors -- who live much closer to their constituents -- have to make practical decisions that members of Congress don't; virtually all states, for instance, have laws requiring a balanced budget. But even so, Republican governors are no more unified than the GOP on Capitol Hill.

Economic conservatives such as Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Jim Gibbons of Nevada have set aside their qualms and generally supported the stimulus plan, with its promise of federal aid to help ease their state budget woes. "I have great misgivings . . . but I hope that it's going to work," Daniels told reporters Thursday in Indianapolis, saying he would work to make sure his state takes "maximum advantage" of the stimulus plan.

Small-government stalwarts such as Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Mark Sanford of South Carolina -- who face their own budget headaches -- have nevertheless expressed opposition, saying Obama's plan would only throw good money after the funds wasted in the massive financial bailout bill. "I'm not sure a stimulus package is going to do much good after all the money the federal government has popped into the economy," Barbour told the Wall Street Journal.

It has been more than a decade since the GOP has been in such a weakened state, and even longer since the party has faced a Democrat in Obama's strong political position.

Looking back at the difficult days after the 1992 campaign, when Democrats controlled the White House and Congress, some say Republicans could reverse their fortunes in the 2010 midterm election. "There's very little permanence today in American politics," said Rich Galen, a leading Republican strategist in 1994, when the party broke a 40-year Democratic grip on the House and also captured the Senate.

Still, Galen and others suggested Republicans could not merely wait for Obama to fail of his own accord or, worse, offer nothing beyond reflexive criticism of the president and his proposals.

"When your message is you're better than the alternative, you have to have ideas," said Brian Darling, director of Senate relations for the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank that has long been an incubator of conservative policy.

Broadly speaking, Republicans have been making their long-standing case for smaller, less intrusive government. They say that putting money directly into people's wallets, through tax cuts, is a better way to spur the economy than channeling money through public works and other government spending programs.

But some worry the GOP has lost its credibility on economic issues as a result of the budget-busting policies of President Bush and the financial crisis that many voters blame on his administration.

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