Road Map: GOP Confident About Message on Stimulus

Posted September 15, 2008 at 6:46pm

Despite turmoil in the financial markets, Congressional Republicans say they are content to resist the Democrats’ call of “It’s the economy, stupid,” during the upcoming debate over a massive spending bill intended as an economic stimulus.

[IMGCAP(1)]Republicans on both sides of the Capitol said they’re prepared to stick with their message that economic recovery will come in the form of a comprehensive energy policy that includes more offshore drilling. They contend that Democrats are bound to overreach and lard up the bill with what voters will think is pork-barrel spending.

“It’ll be pretty easy for us to rip it apart as basically a sham,” said one House Republican leadership aide. “We have plenty of cover in terms of the fact that they’re not going to get an energy bill done.”

“I don’t see much enthusiasm, I don’t sense much pressure, and I don’t see much inclination on our side for a stimulus bill,” echoed one senior Senate GOP aide. “I don’t think the last [stimulus measure] created the wake we hoped it would.”

Plus, Republicans said they believe Democrats are just setting up the stimulus bill as a political ploy in advance of the November elections.

“The thought of a $50 billion to $75 billion, as-yet-unseen bill becoming law in the next two weeks is remote,” said another senior Senate GOP aide, referencing Congress’ planned Sept. 26 adjournment date. “They just want to try to engineer some political votes.”

Democrats say the weekend’s financial industry meltdown, which included a bankruptcy filing by investment powerhouse Lehman Brothers, will force presidential and Congressional candidates to put renewed emphasis on the economy, and it could help spur the chances for the stimulus package, which could come up for a vote in the House this week.

“The campaign had hit silly season, and it just hit a dose of reality,” said a House Democratic aide. “This is an opportunity to actually get the Congress to do something.”

Democrats won’t be seeking funds just for programs such as Medicaid, unemployment benefits, home heating assistance and road construction, to name a few. They also plan to plug in billions in disaster relief for the Gulf Coast, recently battered by Hurricanes Ike and Gustav, and they’re likely to add a plan to offer loan guarantees to struggling automakers. That plan is supported by presidential contenders Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who are both trying to win Michigan’s 17 electoral votes.

That could put many vulnerable GOP incumbents and even a few relatively safe conservatives — such as in-cycle Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), whose state was smacked by Ike this past weekend — in a tough spot.

Republican aides said it is difficult to know how individual Republicans will react to the Democratic bill because their Members have been so focused on the energy debate that they have yet to fully engage on a stimulus measure that has not yet been unveiled.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said some Republicans would likely jump on board but predicted that the GOP would still prevent Democrats from getting the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

“I think it’s likely we’ll be able to get some significant Republican support,” Levin said. “Now, whether or not we can get enough to overcome any filibuster which is staged is always a question in the Senate. … But I would say [the current economic situation] would help us. It increases the chances that we could get to 60 votes.”

While GOP aides concede that Democrats may pick up a handful of Republican votes for their stimulus, they said the details that have emerged about the Democratic plan make it unlikely that the bulk of GOP Members will support it.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) strongly hinted Monday that Democratic spending initiatives would be greeted with strong skepticism.

“We need to restore confidence in the financial markets and get our economy moving again not by growing the size of the federal government, but by stopping the Democrats’ job-killing tax hike, cutting wasteful Washington spending, reforming oversight of the markets, and unshackling American energy resources to help lower gas prices and create new good-paying American jobs,” he said in a statement.

However, Boehner’s deputy, Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), said last week that some of the Democrats’ ideas were worth debating.

“I would think some things will happen in the stimulus package, in a sort of economic security package,” Blunt said. “I would expect those to include a fresh look at [home heating assistance], probably a look at where we are on unemployment insurance extension, and see where we go from there.”

GOP aides said they expect to see some of the spending measures in the stimulus — such as disaster relief and unemployment insurance — to crop up on the continuing resolution that Congress aims to pass by the end of next week. That would give Republicans another opportunity to support a scaled-back package, they argued. The CR is needed to keep the government running in the absence of new appropriations bills to fund federal agencies.

Regardless of whether Republicans relent to a few “stimulative” measures as part of the CR, Democrats said Republicans face even deeper political peril by not recognizing the economic uncertainty that voters are feeling so close to Election Day.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), already has his talking points linking Republicans to recent McCain statements that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.”

“In the end, I expect them to stick with Sen. McCain and his outdated notion that the economy is strong,” Manley said.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.