Stimulus Still Lacks Harmony

Obama Fails to Bring Republicans On Board

Posted January 27, 2009 at 6:32pm

President Barack Obama is unlikely to get the broad bipartisan support he seeks for his $825 billion economic stimulus bill in either chamber, despite a Tuesday charm offensive in which he allowed both House and Senate Republicans to question him directly about his plans on their turf.

With House GOP leaders calling on their Members to oppose the measure even before Obama set foot in the Capitol and with concerns deepening among Senate Republicans over the cost and scope of the bill, even the president acknowledged that he was dealing with a tough crowd.

“As I’ve said, we’re not going to get 100 percent agreement. We might not even get 50 percent agreement, but I do think people appreciate me walking them through my thought processes on this,” Obama told reporters after meeting with Senate Republicans in the Capitol. “My attitude is, this is the first major piece of legislation that we’ve been working on on the Hill and that, over time, some of these habits of consultation and mutual respect will take over. But old habits die hard.”

The House is expected to vote on the package Wednesday, and Democratic leaders at press time appeared ready to allow Republicans to have two votes to alter the measure before it passes. Two Senate committees marked up their versions of the tax and spending portions of the measure Tuesday, with Senate floor consideration expected to begin next week.

In both the House and Senate, Republicans said Obama politely shot down their suggestions for massive rewrites of the plan, which Obama hopes to have on his desk by Feb. 13. Of course, Obama was facing a tough sell to begin with, given that Republicans acknowledged they were leaning against voting for the massive spending in the bill anyway.

“Most Republicans will be hard-pressed to vote for anything that grows the size of government,” Senate Republican Conference Vice Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said prior to the meeting with Obama. Afterward, Thune said he wasn’t sure if Obama swayed any GOP Senate votes.

“He did a very good job of making his case and a very good job of listening to some of the issues that Republicans wanted to have addressed and so, as I said, it was a very healthy, very positive exchange. Whether it swings votes, I don’t know,” Thune said.

One senior Senate GOP aide was more blunt: “The more [GOP Senators] learn about the package, the more they dislike it.”

On the House side, Members were primarily concerned with the size of the tax portion of the package, complaining that the $275 billion in both the House and Senate versions was not enough and not the right combination of tax breaks.

House Republicans said Obama made clear that he is committed to the basic outlines of his stimulus plan and defended it — saying GOP lawmakers should feel free to “whack me over the head, because I probably will not compromise on” controversial payroll tax changes, for example.

House Republicans complained the package contains too many liberal spending programs for them to stomach.

“He’s confident that spending will help out the economy and we’re not confident that it will,” Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) said.

Obama seemed to indicate that he believes Republicans were protesting too much over the size of the tax portion. “I tried to remind people that even with the modifications that have been made in the House, we still have $275 billion worth of tax cuts. And I tried to remind them that when it was $300 billion at the beginning when we put our framework together, there was a lot of praise from the Republican side — some grousing from my side of the aisle — and [the bill] hasn’t changed that much.”

House Democrats expressed frustration that some Republicans were taking potshots at relatively minor provisions.

“I’m concerned that we’re facing the biggest financial crisis of our lifetime and there are a lot of people who seem to want us to fail,” said Kirstin Brost, spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee. “Instead of giving us constructive ideas, they are demagoguing on minutiae.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that while the bill would have “tweaks” when it hits the floor tomorrow, the basic structure wouldn’t change.

“The bill is what it is,” she said.

She said Republicans would have an opportunity to offer their alternative, and denied GOP charges that they weren’t included, noting that they already have had “26 to 27 hours of amendments” in committee.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the left-leaning Progressive Caucus, noted that adding significantly more tax cuts without more spending would cause liberals to bolt.

They’ll lose a lot of progressive Democratic votes,” she said, adding that Obama already gave $275 billion in tax cuts to appeal to Republicans. “That’s tough enough to swallow,” she said.

Democrats appeared prepared to allow Republicans at least two opportunities to change the bill, through a substitute amendment as well as a procedural motion that, if successful, would make immediate changes to the bill.

As of press time, Republicans had yet to finalize the language of the proposals they would offer. The substitute amendment will likely be the language presented to Obama by the House Republican Economic Recovery Working Group with a provision added for unemployment insurance.

On the Senate side, Republicans emphasized the need to reconfigure the package to address housing foreclosures. Led by Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), GOP Senators pressed for a rewrite that would use hundreds of billions of dollars to create a program of Treasury-backed consumer mortgages that are locked at 4 percent.

A Senate GOP aide said Obama appeared receptive to that idea, and agreed that the issue needs to be addressed. But the president said he was planning on dealing with housing foreclosures in a separate bill, the aide said.

Alexander declined to characterize Obama’s response to the issue, but said Republicans are committed to pushing it.

“Because we have scarce dollars and all the money we’re spending we’re borrowing, I for one would rather spend it on getting housing going,” Alexander said. “If you get housing moving, you get the economy moving.”

Alexander made a similar case during the Senate Appropriations Committee markup of the $365.6 billion spending portion of the bill, which was approved with all Democrats and four Republicans. However, Republican aides cautioned that at least three of the Members who voted for the bill — including ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Kit Bond (R-Mo.) — cautioned that they would not support it on the floor without changes.

A Senate Finance panel markup was still in swing as of press time. The committee voted to accept at least one GOP amendment. The proposal, which would add nearly $70 billion to the bill, would make sure that middle-income taxpayers are not struck by the alternative minimum tax. Republicans had said the provision needed to be included, although they did not promise to vote for the bill if it was.

Though Obama largely struck out on Tuesday afternoon, the White House was prepared to make one last pitch for bipartisanship in the House. A group of moderate Republicans was invited to the White House by Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, for dinner Tuesday night.

“Hopefully it’s not just a one-time thing for the bill tomorrow,” said Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), one of the invitees. Gerlach said he will vote against the bill in its current form.

Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.