Road Map: GOP Wants Obama to Give on Stimulus Bill

Posted January 26, 2009 at 6:25pm

In the first month of 2009, President Barack Obama seems like he’s spending more time on Capitol Hill than he did the last two years he served in the Senate, and he’s definitely spending more time with Republicans.

[IMGCAP(1)]“President Obama has probably had more meetings with Republicans than the Speaker of the House has,” one House GOP leadership aide quipped.

But Republicans said Obama will have to do more than flatter them by agreeing to appear at their luncheons today, even as they give him credit for trying to change the overtly partisan tone that has gripped Washington for two decades.

“Unless he’s prepared to walk over to [Senate

Majority Leader] Harry Reid’s [D-Nev.] and [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi’s [D-Calif.] offices and tell them to reset their priorities on this stimulus bill, I think the reality of bipartisanship on this bill is going to be hard to achieve,” one Senate GOP leadership aide said.

Obama will be making his second appearance before Senate Republicans — and first before House Republicans — to ask them for even more money than he requested two weeks ago when he was still president-elect and wanted access to $350 billion in Wall Street bailout funds. And this time, he’s got Vice President Joseph Biden joining the charm offensive by making calls to GOP lawmakers.

Obama wants $825 billion in what Democrats hope will be “Main Street” rescue funds, and he’s made no secret of his strong desire for the final votes to reek of bipartisanship.

But that may be a tough pill to swallow for both parties on Capitol Hill.

Obama already added some tax relief to his package at the urging of Republicans, but it doesn’t seem to have satisfied either side.

“Republicans don’t quite know how to deal with it,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said of Obama’s willingness to add provisions they support. “And Democrats — some of them — don’t quite know why we’re giving some of this stuff away. The ‘change’ approach is throwing both sides off.”

Another Senate Democratic aide complained that Obama’s overtures have given Republicans “the sense that they’re more entitled than they should be” to having their ideas incorporated into the bill. Still, the aide said, Obama should be able to build credibility with Republicans, even if they vote against the stimulus, because “he doesn’t think it’s beneath him to come up here and work for votes he doesn’t need for passage but that he wants because he wants to make this a bipartisan thing.”

Humble or not, the president confronts a number of problems on Capitol Hill: bailout fatigue in both parties, concerns about the overall cost of the program amid rumors that hundreds of billions more may be needed before year’s end, and, particularly among Republicans, the fear of supporting more massive government spending on Democratic favorites such as food stamps, unemployment insurance and construction projects.

Senate Republicans were careful to point out that their invite for Obama to visit was proffered in December, but they conceded that the talk today will center on what they want to see in the stimulus bill.

Though they vigorously opposed a Democratic-sponsored housing bill last summer, Republicans now appear set to draw their line in the sand over the issue. One senior Senate GOP aide said Republicans were coalescing Monday evening around a plan to demand that Obama and Congressional Democrats reconfigure the stimulus to help mitigate foreclosures and spur buyers to invest in new homes.

“Republicans are increasingly concerned that the stimulus bill is leaving the housing crisis out of the equation,” the aide said.

House Republicans said they are grateful for Obama’s appearance today, but that it comes on the eve of Pelosi trying to shove what they consider an odious bill down their throats.

“Democrats in both the Senate and House are moving ahead at full speed without much, if any, Republican input,” the House GOP leadership aide said. “The problem that the president has is that his leaders in both chambers are not willing to take any cues from him to stop the process and make changes.”

Though that may be a more valid complaint in the House, given Pelosi’s plan to vote Wednesday on her package, one Senate Democratic leadership aide said that Republicans have been consulted and will have another opportunity to put their stamp on both the tax and spending portions of the Senate version at dueling markups today in the Senate Appropriations and Finance committees. Then, the aide said, they will have more chances to change it on the Senate floor next week.

“Hopefully, that’s going to go a long way to satisfy some of the concerns by Republicans,” the aide said.

Of course, the Senate markups could work against Democrats if they load up the bill with more spending and not more tax breaks.

“You can expect that if the Senate bill, after it’s marked up … looks like the House bill, you’re not going to see a whole lot of Republican support,” another senior Senate GOP aide warned. “What remains to be seen is whether the president’s vision of bipartisanship can be accomplished by Democrat leaders in Congress.”