Lawmakers craft role in time of crisis

Republican members weigh working with Obama versus more traditional opposition role.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Barack Obama delivers his address to Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday.

For 52 minutes, in his first address to a joint session of Congress, Barack Obama gave lawmakers a primer on how to set a tone and turn a phrase.

“We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before,” he said. Closing, he added: “We are equal to the task before us.”

After months of dismal economic news, the message – and the popular messenger – set a tone that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said was sorely needed.

Now, Democrats and Republicans are eager to put their own stamp on how that vision takes shape.

On Thursday, the president sends his first proposed budget to Capitol Hill, launching months of hearings and debate. Next week, the White House hosts a summit on healthcare.

For Republicans, it’s a classic choice: Work with the majority Democrats and hope to leverage GOP priorities into the outcome – or recast the party brand around opposition to the principle of an expanded government role.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s address Tuesday night, chose Option B.

Governor Jindal, along with a handful of other Southern governors, says that he will refuse some of the federal dollars for his state in the $787 billion economic recovery plan that Congress passed earlier this month.

“What it will do is grow the government, increase our taxes down the line, and saddle future generations with debt,” he said. Other Southern Republican governors were critical of congressional Republicans for not opposing plans to expand government more vigorously.

In Congress, GOP leaders said they welcomed the president’s calls for fiscal discipline but predicted a vigorous debate over proposed tax increases and reductions in defense spending.

“We think we ought to do a spending freeze across the board,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R) of Indiana, who chairs the House Republican Conference.

“We think the pathway forward is fiscal discipline combined with not tax increases in the near future but tax relief that will release the inherent power of the American economy,” he says. “It should set the stage for a healthy debate.”

Senate Republicans, with a recount in Minnesota pending, currently have just barely enough votes to block legislation, if they hold together. Three GOP moderates broke ranks to pass the stimulus bill.

“In this moment of economic hardship, we should be more vigilant about spending taxpayer dollars, not less,” said Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, in a statement after Obama’s address.

In the face of a tough economy and massive state budget shortfalls, opposition to more federal dollars could be tough to sustain, especially for state governors.

“There’s a tension that’s going to emerge in the Republican Party not just over strategy but over pure needs. Most of the states can’t afford that,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J.

“Schools close ... and no one wants that,” he says. “The practical needs of the states right now are much greater than a free-market model can support.”

There are also bipartisan initiatives that could give Republicans a more constructive voice in response to the crisis.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, says that bipartisan meetings of some 20 senators could produce a breakthrough on ways to cut entitlement spending.

“We’re on a completely unsustainable course,’ said Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, who chairs the Senate Budget panel. “I have reason to believe that President Obama is very, very serious about this.”

“When you have a dramatic economic slowdown, you need government to step forward to fill in the gap, and that adds to deficits and debt,” he says. “But for the longer term, you need a course that’s sustainable. And that duality is reality, even though it’s hard for people to understand.”

Meanwhile, Democrats say they expect that the president will leave many of the details of new investments in energy, education, and healthcare to Congress to work out. They do not expect to be a rubber stamp, even for a president of their own party.

President Clinton tried to write healthcare reform in the White House and it didn’t work,” says Rep. Jim McDermott (D) of Washington.

“President Obama interacted with us in a way that Clinton initially thought he didn’t need to do,” he says. “He told us what his agenda was tonight: Energy bills and healthcare reform. You watch, we’ll start moving.”

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