Barack Obama Smart On Republican Response To Stimulus

By Michael Barone, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The House voted almost entirely on partisan lines to pass the stimulus package that, slightly amended, came out of the House Appropriations Committee. It passed without a single Republican vote and with 11 Democratic votes against, from Allen Boyd (FL 2), Bobby Bright (AL 2), Jim Cooper (TN 5), Brad Ellsworth (IN 8), Parker Griffith (AL 5), Paul Kanjorski (PA 11), Frank Kratovil (MD 1), Walt Minnick (ID 1), Collin Peterson (MN 7), Heath Shuler (NC 11), and Gene Taylor (MS 4). They break into several categories. Boyd and Cooper are "blue dogs" by conviction who represent state capital districts (Tallahassee, Nashville) that wouldn't have minded pro-stimulus votes. Bright, Griffith, Kratovil, and Minnick won their seats in 2008 in Republican-leaning districts. Ellsworth and Shuler won their seats in 2006 in Republican-leaning districts. Kanjorski is an old-timer who was pressed in the 2008 election. Taylor is a temperamental Jacksonian maverick elected in the Gulf Coast Mississippi district who mostly votes like a Republican but wears no man's collar. Peterson is a committee chairman (Agriculture) who represents a rural district that, despite historic DFL roots, has recently been the most Republican district in Minnesota in presidential elections. It took some guts, in my view, for Boyd, Cooper, and Peterson to cast these votes.

House Republican Whip Eric Cantor makes the point in this pre-roll call interview with Marc Ambinder that the stimulus package should include more tax cuts and less government spending. He seems to have public opinion on his side. Pollster Scott Rasmussen reports that 53 percent of Americans believe that it's always better to cut taxes than to increase government spending, while only 24 percent disagree.

Was this a failure of President Obama's professed desire for bipartisanship? On the surface, yes. But I think you have to give Obama some credit for journeying to Capitol Hill to talk with House Republicans. He listened respectfully, and although he didn't press the House Democratic leaders for more than one or two small concessions--they dropped funding for contraceptives, an item that was clearly a source of political embarrassment--he did at least listen. That's more than Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson did in the first days when he was trying to get the $700 billion TARP package passed: He dealt only with House Democrats (though with both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, in the knowledge that any package might require 60 votes there). But he ignored the House Republicans, on the theory that the Democratic leadership could pass anything it wanted. He did that even after Nancy Pelosi said on September 23 that she wanted 100 Republican votes for the package in the House. That should have signaled Paulson that he must deal with the Republicans; clearly Pelosi wanted to leave room for many Democrats, especially (though not, as it turned out, exclusively) those in marginal districts, to vote against the package. But Paulson did not engage the House Republicans, and they in turn let it be known that the ranking member on the Banking Committee, Spencer Bachus of Alabama, couldn't speak for them--and for several critical days they didn't advance anyone else who could.

The result was the defeat of the $700 billion package in the House September 29. In the process, Eric Cantor stepped forward with the proposal that the package include the option for Treasury to insure toxic assets in banks' portfolios. Such language was included, although Treasury let Cantor know that it had concluded that this alternative was not feasible (presumably because it was too hard to calculate what the insurance premiums should be, a problem very much akin to the valuation problem in the option Paulson was saying then he favored: the government buying up the toxic assets in bank portfolios). The insurance provisio was included in the legislation passed by the Senate on October 1, together with a couple of other provisions House Republicans favored, and the House passed the bill October 3.

Lesson: In these tough situations, it helps to know early on what is wanted by the House Republicans, who are powerless as a general rule but essential when it is deemed necessary to have partisan cover to pass difficult legislation. I give Obama credit for listening to them, though not at the moment giving them much of anything, because this will make it easier to find bipartisan agreement than it was on September 29. At least he has set up channels of communication and established whom he must negotiate with and gotten an idea of what they want, which Paulson did not do in the days after September 23. I'm not sure I will like the result, but I like to see political competence.

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