Stimulus Vote; Judd Gregg Returns To Senate

The Senate votes on the stimulus bill today, and Senator Judd Gregg returns to his role at the Capitol as a key GOP strategist. NPR news analyst Juan Williams talks about events in Washington and the political landscape beyond the Beltway.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, we meet southern California's cupid of the airwaves. But first - memo to President Obama: Republicans, they're just not that into you. The stimulus bill finally comes to a vote today in the House and Senate with just three Republicans supporting it. Meanwhile, the White House is trying to manage the fallout after Republican New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg abruptly withdrew as the president's commerce secretary. So, is this the end of President Obama's dream for bipartisanship. NPR News analyst Juan Williams is here now. And Juan, let's first talk about this Gregg announcement that he decided to not take this job as commerce secretary after all. I understand this really caught the White House by surprise.

JUAN WILLIAMS: It did, because the - and this has become a matter of debate now, Madeleine - exactly who approached whom about the job. And the idea is that White House has been pretty emphatic in saying Judd Gregg, the Republican Senator from New Hampshire, had approached them about being open to becoming commerce secretary. And then, there was some suggestion that, no, in fact it was the Obama White House that went after Senator Gregg. And even yesterday, again, much argument about when did President Obama know that Judd Gregg was not going to take the job.

It's - the timing of this thing is just a problem for the White House though, Madeleine, because what you see is here we have a moment when the White House would much prefer to focus on the victory they are about to have, in terms of a stimulus package. They'd much prefer to be talking about the whole notion of his efforts to do bipartisan outreach. Instead, he's being rebuffed, and it's a real - I think, a real weapon in the hands of Republican leadership to say that, you know what? Despite people like Judd Gregg wanting to work with President Obama, his policies are just too liberal and too distant from core Republican values.

BRAND: Well, it's not as if Senator Gregg didn't know that President Obama is a Democrat and this is a democratic administration.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: So, I mean, what was it that changed his mind all of a sudden?

WILLIAMS: Well, that's an excellent point. I would just add to what you said in - you know, in a very direct fashion, that he clearly knew about the stimulus package. He had recused himself from voting in the Senate as a potential nominee for a commerce secretary position. I think that what really changed it for him had a lot to do with the census issue, Madeleine. And this is the case here that the census is run by the commerce secretary. It comes under his mandate.

And what you heard from black and Latino elected officials in the Congress was great concern that Judd Gregg, who had once voted to eliminate the Commerce Department, said, you know what? We're concerned that he is not going to be open to doing the kind of count that we think is necessary to get a full estimate of the presence of minorities in this country, which of course will influence congressional districts and how they're drawn, influence funding for - especially for social programs. And the argument has long come from minority communities that they have been undercounted.

And so, all of a sudden, the White House said oh, we can handle that. We'll move it into the White House. Judd Gregg suddenly was not going to be a player in the census, and the question was, would he be a player on the stimulus package, given some of his own concerns about the need for additional tax cuts? And I think Judd Gregg said, hey, if I'm not going to be a player, why am I coming to the game?

BRAND: Well, OK. So, this shows some power on the part of the Republicans and real unity in opposing the stimulus plan. Is this good, politically? Is this a good idea for them?

WILLIAMS: You know, that is the story, and I'm so glad you said it, because that is the story of what's going on here. And I think it's being ignored. We have a very popular new president in President Obama. His numbers in the polls are about 70 percent, in terms of approval. Even on the stimulus package - the stimulus package has more than 50 percent support among the American people. But here are Republicans suddenly looking revived, unified, and what they're saying is, we're going back to basic principles, in terms of low taxes, no deficits, and we're going to oppose any kind of pork.

In addition to which, the deficits that built up under President Bush - we're going to distance ourselves from President Bush. President Bush was the one who approved TARP - you know, the special effort to try to save the banks. We're not going to support that kind of big spending anymore. This is a new face for the Republican Party, and the stunner is that they are unified, that they are holding to it, that you've got essentially a hardcore of conservatives - not that many moderate Republicans in the House, definitely not. In the Senate, we saw the few who were willing to work with President Obama. But it's this new, revitalized, energized Republican Party that's emerged so quickly in the first few weeks of the Obama administration that's the big surprise.

BRAND: NPR News analyst Juan Williams. Thanks as always, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Madeleine.

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