Obama wins his economic stimulus package, but without the bipartisanship he sought

A video grab shows Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown approaching the desk on the Senate floor to cast the final vote to pass the $787 billion stimulus bill in Washington, February 13, 2009. The stimulus bill is now headed to President Obama's desk for signature.

With just three Republican votes, Congress passed a $787.2 billion stimulus plan that President Obama calls a “once-in-a generation” chance to act boldly and transform the US economy.

The bill aims to create (or save) 3.5 million jobs and help stressed families pay for food, housing, and health care. At $575 billion in spending and $212 billion in tax breaks, the plan also aims to leverage new economic activity and growth.

“Once Congress passes this plan and I sign it into law, a new wave of innovation, activity and construction will be unleashed all across American,” Mr. Obama told workers at a town meeting in East Peoria, Ill., on Thursday.

But the president also had worked for a big, bipartisan vote to show that Washington could also transform its own toxic political culture and find a new direction. That, he did not get.

In the end, no House Republicans voted for the economic recovery bill. It passed the House on Friday by a vote of 246 to 183. (Seven Democrats also opposed the bill.) Hours later, the Senate just barely passed the bill, 60 to 38, with three crucial Republican votes to reach the 60-vote threshold to avoid a filibuster.

“But for them, we would not be where we are,” said Senate majority leader Harry Reid, after Friday night’s final Senate vote.

Their key votes gave GOP Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania unusual clout in determining the final shape of the bill. As a price for their support, Democrats agreed to cut more than $100 billion out of the Senate version of the bill ¬and to insist on those cuts in final negotiations with the House.

“This bill doesn’t meet any test of bipartisanship, and that’s a loss,” said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, just before the Senate vote. “There’s never been a real effort to try to find common ground here.”

There are deep differences between how Republicans and most Democrats understand the crisis. With credit frozen and consumer confidence in the tank, Democrats say that the only way out is a massive program of government spending, targeted to create jobs.

On the other hand, Republicans wanted to see most of the stimulus in the form of tax cuts, at about half the cost of the Democratic plan. Not all spending is stimulus, they say, and the spending Democrats propose will also tend to permanently expand the size of government and burden future generations with a massive federal debt.

Seven House Democrats, citing the need for fiscal discipline, joined a united Republican caucus in opposing the stimulus bill.

“Every speech I ever gave both seeking this office and seeking reelection, I emphasize the need for us to balance our budget,” said Rep. Gene Taylor (D) of Mississippi, a fiscal conservative, who says that a critical mass of other fiscal conservatives on the Democratic side of the aisle also opposes big deficits, but did not come out to oppose the bill. “It’s a disappointment.”

“This one bill will increase the national debt by as much money as the nation borrowed from the Revolutionary War through the Gerald Ford presidency. So, it’s completely contrary to what I told the people who elected me what I would do,” he adds.

For weeks in the run-up to Friday’s vote, President Obama, along with top advisers, talked regularly with Republican lawmakers to try to get significant GOP support for the stimulus plan. After that effort came up zero in the House, some Democrats called that effort a waste of time and said that the president should give it up.

“It deflected attention from the bill,” says Rep. George Miller (D) of California, who chairs the House Education and Labor committee.

Moreover, Democratic leaders say there’s little basis for compromise with Republicans.
“We’ve done something today that’s transformational for the nation,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a briefing after Friday’s vote. “Republicans want to go down the same old path that got us to this place where we are now. The failed economic policies of the Bush administration were rejected by the American people. We’re not going back.”

In response, Republicans say there are still opportunities for bipartisan cooperation on big policy issues in the future, if the president can change hearts and minds in his own party.

“To his credit, the president reached out. The problem was there was never a reciprocal action on the part of the Speaker,” said House GOP whip Eric Cantor of Virginia, who met with President Obama four times in the run-up to the vote. “It’s not about our being excluded, it’s about the fact that the ideas we’re proposing work. American people are on the side of more tax relief, not more borrowing and spending.”

But even if partisan firefights continue on Capitol Hill, the president’s bid for bipartisanship was not a failure, says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

“When a president reaches out so much and gets back so little, it may look like a failure. But not all things can be measured by votes,” he says. “There’s a higher metric that Obama is shooting for ¬and that’s coming across as a reasonable man who doesn’t engage in the kind of slash-and-burn politics that Americans seem to find so offensive. It’s one of those things that serves him well in his support in public opinion.”

Lawmakers got to see the final version of the historic 1,073-page bill just hours before they had to vote on it. A final scoring of the bill by the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) was released just before the mid-day vote.

The package includes $308.3 billion in new spending, $267 billion for social services, and $212 billion for tax breaks.

Big ticket items on the tax side include: $116.2 billion for President Obama’s signature “Make Work Pay” refundable tax credit (up to $400 for individuals and $800 for married couples), $20 billion in tax incentives for clean energy, a $14 billion tax credit for higher education expenses, and $4.7 billion earned income tax credits for families with three or more children.

On the spending side, the plan projects spending $48 billion on transportation infrastructure, including $27.5 billion for highways, bridges and road projects, and $8.4 billion for mass traffic. There’s $11 billion to modernize the nation’s electric grid and $6 billion to fund alternative energy research.

The plan gives states access to an additional $86.6 billion in federal matching payments for Medicaid and $19 billion to modernize health information technology. The measure also provides $100 billion for education, including $15 billion to increase Pell grants for low-income students by $500 to $4,860 and $13 billion for grants to schools serving low-income families.

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