Feb. 4, 2009 — As the White House pleads for bipartisan support of a massive federal stimulus plan, congressional Democrats and Republicans are maneuvering, strategizing, nervously seeking partners in an awkward legislative first dance that may determine whether Barack Obama makes good on his promise to bring change to Washington, suggests Steven S. Smith, a congressional expert at Washington University in St. Louis.
“President Obama has promised a different kind of Washington, a less partisan Washington, and he’s promised to reach out across party lines, says Smith, the Kate M. Gregg Professor of Social Sciences in Arts and Sciences. “If, in this first huge legislative effort, he finds himself without any Republican support for this big bill, it’s going to look to an awful lot of people in the general public that this is just politics as usual. And, I think that would be a shame.”
Smith, the author eight books on congressional politics, says the real battle over the stimulus plan is taking place in the Senate, where there are sharp differences of opinion on the bill both among and between Democrats and Republicans.
“There are Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, who say — you know, our time has come, let’s take advantage of it, let’s package as much of our program into this stimulus bill as possible because it probably will not be filibustered,” says Smith. “Republicans don’t dare kill this bill when the public clearly thinks we need some pro-active government action on the economic crisis. So let’s package as much of our wish list for a domestic program as we can into this stimulus package and if we pick up too few Republican votes, then too bad — you only get an opportunity like this once every so many years, maybe once a decade and we shouldn’t pass this up.”
While a solid number of Democratic legislators favor this short-term, “smash-and-grab” approach to the stimulus bill, a majority of the Senate Democrats are fiscal conservatives who come from the South, West or Midwest where there are serious concerns about the long-term deficit implications of the bill; they’re all for a massive stimulus plan, but they’re also for responsible government and they’ll be looking for ways to reign in excessive, non-stimulus spending, Smith says.
Dealing with this mix of Democrats will be a challenge for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, says Smith, because the clamor for short-term gains must be weighed against the Democratic Party’s long-term legislative and electoral objectives — how this fight is won will set the tone for equally serious battles down the road.
“The success of the congressional Democrats turns on the success of President Obama, and if President Obama’s success turns, in part, on his ability to come through on his promise to change Washington, to depolarize our politics and to get back to a civil kind of discussion about our nation’s challenges, then that’s a good thing. There are other big challenges coming up,” says Smith. “How are we going to get serious health care reform, deal with the budget challenges associated with Medicare, if we don’t get some bipartisanship in Washington.”
Smith suggests that Senate Democrats are now pursuing two separate avenues to gain Republican support for the measure — working with individual Republicans to insert popular amendments into the bill, while negotiating a broader compromise package with a small group of moderate Republicans who are more inclined to support the current mix of spending and tax proposals.
“The interesting thing here in the Senate is that there appears to be at least three wings to the Republican Party,” says Smith. “There’s at least a number of Senate Republicans who really want no bill at all. There’s another group that basically doesn’t like the spending, but likes the tax cuts. And, there’s probably another third of the Republicans in the Senate — 10 to 15 — who think that the overall mix is about right.”
Smith expects Republican recommendations to fare much better in the Senate, where the legislative process tends to be wide open and flexible, Unlike in the House, where the amendments were carefully controlled by the majority party of the Democrats, virtually any Republican will be able to get his or her amendment considered and voted upon in the Senate, Smith says.
“Republicans are working very hard at crafting amendments that will attract Democratic support,” Smith says. “Most of those Republican measures will not be adopted, but perhaps some will, and with Democratic votes, and as a result, the Senate bill will just naturally incorporate some Republican ideas.”
Smith expects the Senate will eventually pass a stimulus bill of less than $900 billion that will include at least some Republican support. Despite strong Republican misgivings about the legislation, not supporting the bill poses the risk of further damage to the Republican Party and its reputation.
“The Republicans know that they have a serious reputational problem,” Smith says. “They’re seen as the party of the rich, as opposed to the middle- and working-class. They’re seen as the source of the problem in this economic crisis. The Reagan regime of little regulation and big tax cuts seemed to be the formula that created the problems we’re in. They know they have to overcome that reputation, so they have to vote yes for some of what’s going to happen here. We’re going to see new regulations enacted by Congress and we’ve got to deal with this immediate crisis, so Republicans are in a bit of a pickle, and they’re struggling with that, they’re just muddling through right now.”
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