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Obama sets himself a high political bar

The economic stimulus bill is his first big test in replacing ‘old habits’ with less partisanship in Washington.

By Staff writer / January 29, 2009

Senate leaders: A lot is at stake for Republican Mitch McConnell (above) and Democrat Harry Reid (below) as Congress and the White House sort out their relationship. The future of both political parties is in the balance as well, and the first big test could be the economic stimulus bill, the largest spending measure in United States history.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP



President Obama did not win a single Republican vote in the House of Representatives for his giant economic stimulus bill this week. So does that mean he wasted his time reaching out, to an unusual degree, to Republicans?

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Not yet, anyway. By making very public overtures – traveling to Capitol Hill, inviting Republican members to the White House more than once, including to a cocktail party after Wednesday’s vote – he has already distinguished his administration sharply from those in recent memory, analysts say. And he’s begun work on the difficult task of remaking the highly partisan culture of Washington, as promised in his campaign.

Mr. Obama himself has stated that “old habits die hard,” and he seemed unperturbed, at least in public, that he failed to gain any Republican votes.

But his administration also knows that the House vote is just the opening act in a multi-act drama that will play out well into next month in this high-stakes effort to address a sinking economy.

“There’s definitely a longer-term strategy here,” with all this outreach by Obama, says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “And it’s going to be interesting to see in the end if the Republicans get nervous enough that the final vote is a different one.”

There are risks for all concerned.

Obama will ultimately sign some sort of stimulus legislation, given the Democrats’ strength in Congress. But if it fails to get the economy back on solid footing,

Obama will lose his luster with the public. Congressional Democrats, not all that popular as a group, will miss an opportunity to boost their image.

If most Republicans continue to vote “no,” they risk looking like naysayers at a time when their party is trying to regain its image as a party of ideas.

House Republicans did put forth their own stimulus plan, but with the knowledge that the Democratic plan was where the action is. House Republican leaders also telegraphed a disinterest in Obama’s overtures by instructing their members to vote no even before the president went to Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

The Democratic plan contains tax cuts - $275 billion worth, or about a third of the package – which Republicans like, in principle, though they object to the fact that some low-income workers who don’t pay income tax would get money back anyway.

They would also like the tax cuts to be bigger. And Republicans complain that the spending portion of the bill contains money for special projects that they believe will do little for the economy in the short term and will have questionable long-term economic benefit.

In a statement issued after the House vote, Obama betrayed no disappointment over the lack of Republican support, and signaled an openness to accommodating more GOP wishes.