Republicans are not onboard, but — for now at least — a majority of the public appears to be.
It had not been the best couple of days for the 44th president.
Barack Obama had watched with embarrassment as his HHS secretary-to-be was not to be. In the House, not a single Republican (nor a married Republican either) voted for his economic stimulus package, despite his active courting of them. And while the measure nonetheless passed the House, the airwaves and blogosphere were filled with Republican critics of the plan: It was too big, too expensive, too filled with pork, and would not necessarily result in the jobs desperately needed to boost the economy.
Barack Obama had apparently had enough. If governing was not necessarily doing the trick, maybe the answer was campaigning. And so the president flew to the city of Elkhart, Ind., where the unemployment rate has surpassed 15 percent and where he argued that the country can't fall into the morass of politics while people are suffering. Then he came back to Washington to await the Senate vote.
Three Republicans — Maine's Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, along with Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter — were all he could get on yesterday's key vote to advance the stimulus bill in the Senate, but it was enough. And then he went before the nation last night, his first prime-time news conference since the inauguration, where he tried to make the case that even an imperfect bill was better than no bill at all.
There was skepticism from the reporters, but Obama would have none of it. "If there's anyone out there who still doesn't believe this constitutes a full-blown crisis, I suggest speaking to one of the millions of Americans whose lives have been turned upside down because they don't know where their next paycheck is coming from."
That Republicans by and large oppose this bill doesn't mean that they are wrong and the president is right (or vice versa). The GOP has real philosophical and ideological problems with the size and the scope of the bill. And no one can say with any certainty whether or not this will do the trick. But, as the president has argued, he inherited the economic mess and he was elected to deal with it. And he maintains high public approval. If, in the next year or so, nothing has changed in the lives of those affected by the economic downturn, it could be the Democrats who pay the political price.
The Senate is likely to pass the bill today. Because of the difference in the way the House and Senate operate — whichever party has even a simple majority in the House can normally ram through what it wants, whereas in the Senate a lot of compromise and give-and-take are necessary — the two bills are different. In the House, which didn't need GOP votes to pass it, there is more money for aid to state and local governments. More money for Medicaid payments to the unemployed and uninsured. In the Senate, which needed incentives to bring some Republicans along, there are more tax cuts. After today's Senate vote, the bill then goes to a House-Senate conference committee, where the differences need to be ironed out, and then it goes back to the respective chambers for a final vote.
And that leads to this morning's question from Rick Possee of Union, Maine:
Once the stimulus bill leaves the conference committee and returns to the Senate, does it need 60 votes or just a majority?
It will still need 60 to get past a filibuster, but there is no indication as of now that there will be any Republican attempt to hold up the bill when it comes back from conference. It will be interesting to see how insistent House leaders are about removing some of the sweeteners designed to attract GOP votes from the Senate bill.
President Obama once talked about getting 80 votes in the Senate. Now he'll be happy with a bill to sign.