Congressional Republicans hoping to rebound from a second straight drubbing at the polls have placed a very large bet against the $825 billion stimulus package that is the centerpiece of President Barack Obamas early agenda.
The 244-188 vote led by Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) is fraught with political risk. Boehner has sought to avoid the label of the party of no and push alternatives, but his Conference appears unwilling to back anything but another round of tax cuts.
That had Democrats saying Republicans are stuck in the past by opposing the package while the nation is in crisis.
Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) said Republicans run a double risk in voting against the stimulus, since it could confirm the minority as the party of no, and because it would mean rebuffing an astronomically popular president who went out of his way to seek their input.
Its very hard to do what many Republicans did yesterday to walk out of a meeting and talk about how reasonable the president sounded and talk about how respectful he was of their ideas, and then to say, By the way, were still opposed to what hes attempting to do, Davis said.
A handful of freshman Democrats announced their strong support for the package on Wednesday, and said Republicans seemed out of touch with the crisis in the country and the shift in the political winds.
Its almost Alice in Wonderland, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said of Republican attempts to eliminate spending from the measure. Youd never know there was a major election with a huge shift and a clear mandate for a different direction.
Freshman Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) said local schools and governments are in crisis. Like the economy, they need help now, he said.
Four thousand nine hundred of my friends in my hometown lost their jobs yesterday, he said. We are in an economic emergency. There is a tremendous sense of urgency in the country, and this nation demands action. Thats why we are standing up as freshman Democrats.
Democrats can point to local school districts that wont have to lay off teachers and will be able to build new schools, and road projects that will be able get off the ground, Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) said. This bill brought school districts in my district upwards of $97 million, he said.
Although the bill doesnt have earmarks, its full of programs Members are eager to brag about to their constituents. Tax cuts for the middle class, billions of dollars for green energy, health care for the recently unemployed, boosts to food stamps and college aid, to name a few.
It feeds the hungry, shelters the homeless and heals the sick, freshman Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) said.
But its exactly those social programs that are anathema to conservative Republicans, some of whom are proposing cuts in spending, not increases.
Boehner held out some hope that a compromise might yet emerge from conference with the Senate, one that could garner GOP support. Theres a lot of water thats going to flow over the dam over the next few weeks, he said.
But given that the GOP has summarily rejected the bulk of the Democrats spending proposals, such a compromise appears elusive.
And even if Boehner wanted to cut a deal, its not clear how much room to negotiate he has from his partys conservative wing.
The conservative Club for Growth, whose political action committee has backed primary challengers against moderate GOP Members in past cycles, warned that it would not consider any Member who voted for the stimulus package for its annual Defender of Economic Freedom award. The club and its partner organizations raised and bundled more than $10 million to federal candidates in 2008.
If you vote for a $1 trillion stimulus package and the economy is in the gutter, voters are going to look around and say, What did you just do with all of our tax dollars? said Nachama Soloveichik, a spokeswoman for the club.
But Brad Woodhouse, president of the liberal group Americans United For Change, argued the vote would have negative ramifications for Republicans.
In turning their backs on the American people during a time of historic economic crisis to score cheap political points, Republicans in the House at worst may have committed political suicide and best proved their irrelevance to the process, he said.
The Republican campaign machine has meanwhile whipped up the attacks on targeted Democrats over minor provisions in the bill that nonetheless have garnered big headlines.
The National Republican Congressional Committee used a now-eliminated contraceptives line item to go after Democrats in socially conservative districts, following up with an attack targeting Members in states where the community organizing group ACORN is under investigation another knock at a funding measure in the bill. The NRCC finished its round of firings Wednesday by hitting freshmen in the Democratic Caucus for the sexually transmitted disease prevention funds tacked onto the bill.
Democrats are going to have a hard time explaining to their constituents why they essentially voted to flush hundreds of billions of dollars away on wasteful pet projects that will do nothing to stimulate the economy, said Ken Spain, NRCC communications director. Apparently when [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi yanks the leash, the so-called Blue Dogs roll over and play dead.
More than a few Democrats in conservative districts voted against a motion to consider the stimulus bill, including Reps. Christopher Carney (Pa.), Travis Childers (Miss.), Walt Minnick (Idaho), Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Brad Ellsworth (Ind.), Zack Space (Ohio) and Heath Shuler (N.C.) all of whom have had competitive races recently and could have tough re-election challenges in 2010.
One Democratic consultant who works with Congressional candidates acknowledged that voting for the stimulus could be politically dangerous for some Members in the short term because the bill might not prove effective for some time.
I can understand why Democratic Members in some parts of the county in more conservative districts would be more reluctant to support [the stimulus bill] based on the short-term effects on the economy, which are unclear, said the consultant.
But the consultant recalled that Republicans unsuccessfully targeted Democrats on social issues in the South in the previous cycle only to realize that economy was paramount to all other issues.
For his part, Boehner argued the Democratic plan wouldnt work, but fast-acting tax cuts would.
At the end of the day, the American people need a plan that works, he said. Republicans argued their tax cuts would create twice as many jobs as the Democratic plan at half the cost, and said Democrats had failed to consider their ideas.
But Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Republicans had failed to offer new ideas. What they have to have are ideas for the future, she said, adding that Republicans are peddling some of the same ideas that got us into this mess.
And Democrats were convinced Republicans were effectively walking the political plank.
Sometimes your party asks too much of you, and I think the Republican Party is really putting a heavy load on the other side of the aisle, Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) said.
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