GOP Wants More Tax Cuts For Bipartisan Stimulus

The Senate is braced for a showdown next week, when the Democrats plan to push through a nearly $900 billion economic stimulus package. The House passed a slightly smaller measure Wednesday. Not a single Republican voted for the plan, which was after President Obama lobbied GOP lawmakers for a bipartisan bill. The question now is how many Senate Republicans will heed his call?

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The Senate is braced for a showdown next week. The Democrats are in charge, and they plan to push through an economic stimulus package worth nearly $900 billion. The House passed a slightly smaller measure this week without a single vote from Republicans, and that was after President Obama personally lobbied GOP lawmakers. The question now is, how many Senate Republicans will heed his call? NPR's David Welna has this report.

DAVID WELNA: If the Senate's Democratic leaders were startled that not one House Republican voted for the stimulus, they weren't showing it. Here's majority leader Harry Reid speaking to reporters yesterday at the Capitol.

(Soundbite of press conference, January 29, 2009)

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): I think that the president was right in saying he hoped there would be broad bipartisan support. I still hope that we are going to have broad bipartisan support for this bill in the Senate.

WELNA: But at another Capitol briefing, 10 GOP senators showed up and said they had no intention to vote for the stimulus as it stands now, and Alabama's Jeff Sessions played down any prospect of the bill being amended.

(Soundbite of press conference, January 29, 2009)

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): There's very little likelihood that we'll have a substantial change, and so we need to resist this package with every strength that we have. Indeed, the financial soul of this country may be at stake.

WELNA: Republicans like Sessions prefer a stimulus bill with far more tax cuts. Currently, nearly two-thirds of the Senate's version goes to federal spending. And that, said South Dakota's John Thune, is why he's voting against the massive bill.

Senator JOHN THUNE (Republican, South Dakota): It represents, in my view, business as usual in Washington. There's something in there for literally every interest. It's a pent-up wish list of spending programs that many around here have wanted to implement for a really long time.

WELNA: Such spending has strong backing, though, from unions and advocacy groups aligned with Democrats. A coalition known as Americans United for Change is targeting Republican senators in four states with TV ads, like this one aimed at the two GOP senators from Maine.

(Soundbite of Americans United for Change advertisement)

(Soundbite of music)

President BARACK OBAMA: The first job of my administration is to put people back to work and get our economy moving again.

Unidentified Announcer: Tell Senators Collins and Snowe to support the Obama plan for jobs, not the failed policies of the past.

WELNA: Both of Maine's senators are moderates. As it happens, Olympia Snowe cast the only GOP vote in favor of the tax portion of the stimulus package in the Finance Committee this week, and four Republican senators did vote for the spending portion of the package in the Appropriations Committee. Snowe says she expects bipartisan backing in the full Senate for the bill.

Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE (Republican, Maine): I think it could be a very constructive process next week that builds a groundswell of bipartisan support. Hopefully that - that would be the case, because I think it's an important signal to the country at this moment in time and certainly, aftermath of an election that represented extraordinary change.

WELNA: The real question may be how many Senate Republicans it takes to have truly bipartisan support for the stimulus. Senate Republican whip Jon Kyl is his party's chief vote counter. He says Democrats would have to make major concessions to win the kind of bipartisan support envisioned by President Obama.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona; Senate Republican Whip): The president said he knew that it could be passed without Republican votes, but I think he said in the Senate he'd like to have - or like to see 80 votes. And in order to do that, obviously, you'll have to have key Republican concepts embedded in the legislation.

WELNA: Kyl says Democrats can try to cram a stimulus package through the Senate without GOP support, but Democrats alone, he adds, would then have to answer if Americans six months from now say they're no better off or in even worse shape than they're in now. Still, New York's Charles Schumer, who is part of the Senate Democratic leadership, says members of his party are not about to cave to Republicans to bring the vote total to 80.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): Is it a failure if it doesn't get 80 votes? Absolutely not. It's a failure if it fails, or if it doesn't put people to work, or doesn't get the economy going. That's the key here. And to totally eviscerate the package to get 80 votes and have a package that doesn't work? That's not where we're going to go.

WELNA: Schumer said hopefully we can get some Republican votes. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

(Soundbite of music)

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GOP In Balancing Act As Obama Reaches Out

Congressional Republicans find themselves on the receiving end of a White House charm offensive right now. Conversations with a new and popular president may keep even an out-of-power party newsworthy. But disagreeing on policy without being disagreeable in tone poses challenges for the GOP.

Wednesday night's vote on the economic stimulus bill was remarkably partisan: Not a single Republican voted for the bill, which passed anyway and is now headed for the Senate. But on the eve of the vote, President Obama seemed to expect more support from Republicans.

"We're not going to get 100 percent agreement, and we might not even get 50 percent agreement," he said.

In the end, of course, Obama got zero percent agreement. A popular president, an economic crisis and a lot of high-level schmoozing from the White House didn't move a single GOP member.

A coalition of outside pro-Democratic groups predicted dire consequences for the Republicans. "Political Suicide" was the headline on one e-mailed news release. But Rep. Jim Gerlach wasn't scared. And if there's a Republican who should be, it's him.

"My district is a Democrat district in southeastern Pennsylvania, and President Obama did very well there; he won 58, 59 percent," Gerlach said.

But Gerlach hasn't been getting pressure from his constituents. On the contrary, he says the calls and e-mails his office got about the latest economic stimulus bill were "about 3 or 4 to 1 against the bill."

Gerlach doesn't rule out supporting the final bill after it gets back from the Senate and a conference committee — if, he says, it includes more tax cuts for small businesses and more money for roads and bridges.

And Gerlach got some high-powered backing Thursday. Conservative economist Martin Feldstein — who gave the White House a big boost when he came out in favor of a huge stimulus — wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post on Thursday calling the bill as currently written an "$800 billion mistake."

And the man who used to run the House Republican campaign committee, former Rep. Tom Davis, sees absolutely no risk to Republicans who oppose this iteration of the bill.

"For the base, in terms of defining Republicans, a 'no' vote here allows you to go back to our old deficit hawk mantra," Davis said. "I don't think there's any downside in voting against that. They may take a little heat today because the polls say one thing, but I guarantee you, 18 months from now, public opinion will have moved somewhere else. And if this doesn't work, they're going to look like heroes."

In the Senate, the bill will change. There's always more bipartisanship there, where 60 votes are needed to break a filibuster. Already the White House is talking about ways the bill can be "strengthened" — to get more Republican votes.

And when it comes back to the House, some GOP members may get to have it both ways.

"I think there will be some members, particularly in states that are really hard-hit in the Northeast and the Midwest, may end up going along with it, can get bragging rights for this if appropriate modifications are made," Davis said.

For now, the Republican strategy is to praise President Obama and aim their fire at the House Democratic leadership.

"It was very impressive that he came to the Congress and met with us. He was certainly very forthright," said Michigan Republican Dave Camp. "But this is Nancy Pelosi's bill — no input from Republicans, no meetings, no amendments accepted in committee."

All that praise for the president isn't just political spin — it's sincere, Davis said. Obama could end up being more personally popular among House Republicans than his predecessor.

"After Bush, Obama is a breath of fresh air. He's going to do more entertainment of Republican members, and not just leaders — rank-and-file — over the next two or three weeks than Bush probably did in a year," Davis said.

As for long-term political calculations, both sides appear to be acting according to their interests. Obama gets a lot of points from the public for trying so hard to change the tone and a lot of goodwill from Republicans for reaching out, and that should help him on future big battles.

Unlike the stimulus, which involves the relatively easy tasks of spending a lot of money and cutting taxes, what comes next — health care, energy and entitlement reform — requires hard political choices and will need big bipartisan support to succeed.

Meanwhile, Republicans in the House reaffirm their principles, reassure their base and get positioned for the next debate. If Republicans said no to everything every step of the way, they could be vulnerable. But no one expects that to happen, as both sides — the president and the congressional minority — settle in to their new roles in the unfamiliar world of civilized partisan warfare.

Correction Jan. 30, 2009

In some broadcasts, we followed this report with a story that incorrectly said that the Senate had passed a health care bill "that would cover more than 4 million uninsured children." The bill actually would cover an additional 4 million children. The correct total is 11 million.

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