The unanimous vote by House Republicans against President Obama's stimulus plan provided an early indication that the GOP hopes to regain power by becoming the champion of small government, a reputation many felt slipped away during the high-spending Bush years.
The bill passed easily despite the opposition of all 177 Republican House members, but party leaders delighted in what they considered a victory after two straight electoral drubbings and much soul-searching about what the party stands for.
"How about those House Republicans?" cheered Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a vocal small-government advocate, at a Heritage Foundation appearance yesterday.
"House Republicans said we would stand up for American taxpayers at this time of economic hardship for our nation. And last night, standing together, that's exactly what we did," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) wrote yesterday in a memo to his colleagues that was released to reporters. "I am proud of our team."
Republicans credited their leadership team for keeping them united in the demand for more tax cuts and less spending in the bill, providing a boost for Boehner, who three months ago faced questions about whether he could retain his position as House Republicans were headed for another election marked by heavy losses.
As the vote on the bill neared, Republicans expected overwhelming opposition, but party leaders also anticipated at least a handful of defections.
Conservative talk show hosts whipped up opposition to the bill, and Republicans said they received dozens of e-mails and phone calls about it, almost all voicing opposition. In a meeting with congressional leaders, Obama warned against following the lead of conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh. But on the day of the vote, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) was on Limbaugh's show, laughing as the host referred to the "porkulus" bill.
Incentive for opposition
Obama also gave Republicans incentive to oppose his bill, according to GOP aides who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about internal party deliberations. In his private appearance with House Republicans on Tuesday, the new president acknowledged that the House version of the bill contained too much spending and indicated he was open to more tax breaks for small businesses. Obama suggested that fixes would be made in the Senate and during a House-Senate conference to work out differences between versions of the bill.
Aides said Obama's signal that the final version would be more to their liking provided an incentive for wavering Republicans to vote against the bill, thereby winning kudos from conservatives while leaving them the option of voting for the final product.
Republican aides also said Boehner implored wavering members to vote against the bill, arguing that a unified opposition would force Democrats to make more concessions.
The night before the vote, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel lobbied a dozen of his former House colleagues, almost all moderates from liberal-leaning districts, but by then many had already begun looking past the version of the bill they were about to vote on.
"This sets the stage for the future," Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said after the meeting, suggesting he could support the final legislation.
Still, Republicans sought to avoid a confrontation with Obama, praising the new president as "gracious" and "sincere" for his outreach efforts and instead blaming congressional Democrats for mucking up the bill with favored projects that would not stimulate the economy.
"The president's call for bipartisanship has been completely ignored by the House Democrats," Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the No. 3 man in the GOP House leadership, said on the eve of Wednesday night's stimulus vote.
Republicans highlighted questionable provisions, such as extra funding for pregnancy prevention that was later taken out at Obama's urging.
"People got the impression it was a lot of spending," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) "The $200 million for the National Mall, even though it got taken out, once people realize that it's in there, they can sink their teeth into it."
He added: "There is a bailout fatigue, a spending fatigue that set in."
That fatigue is threatening to cross the aisle, as some Senate Democrats from conservative-leaning states have begun to echo Republican questions about spending in the legislation.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who remains undecided about the bill, said he opposes money going to research projects at the National Institutes of Health and about $13 billion for Pell grants that help students pay for college. Nelson says the measures are worthy but do not belong in legislation designed to stimulate the economy.
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), chairman of the Budget Committee, said he agreed with Republican critiques that the bill does not do anything to alleviate the collapsed housing market, the underlying cause of the economic crisis. Conrad said he supports cutting funding for programs that won't help the economy in favor of diverting that money to help mitigate home foreclosures.
"I've had conversations with a growing number of colleagues who are concerned," Conrad added.
GOP a party in trouble
At the same time, several GOP senators, including Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), have signaled they will back the stimulus bill. And Republicans acknowledge they remain a party in trouble. In a speech to Republican National Committee members yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned that "the Republican Party seems to be slipping into a position of being more of a regional party than a national one."
"We need to recognize where we are," McConnell said. "Over the past two elections, we've lost 13 Senate seats and 51 House seats."
Some Democrats attacked the GOP yesterday for being too partisan and warned that voters would punish them for opposing Obama's economic vision. MoveOn.org and other liberal groups started running ads advocating the stimulus.
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