Too Early To Give Up On Bipartisanship?

There had been talk of making the economic stimulus package a bipartisan package, and President Obama went to the Capitol this week to appeal directly for Republican support. No Republicans in the House voted for the bill. Prospects in the Senate don't look much better. Does that mean the idea of cooperation between the parties is dead?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Not long after the House vote yesterday, with no Republicans in the House behind him, President Obama continued his lobbying efforts. He hosted a cocktail party at the White House for House and Senate leaders, both Democrats and Republicans. It was another attempt to rally bipartisan support for the economic stimulus package, which so far is very little in evidence. Joining us now for some analysis is NPR's Juan Williams. Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: You know, why do politicians always seem to talk about bipartisanship, but then when it comes down to it, they vote along party lines?

WILLIAMS: Well, Renee, it's a question of what's in it for me? And during campaign season, politicians want to talk to middle-of-the-road voters, and they want to be seen as willing to compromise in order to get something done in Washington and break the partisan gridlock.

But when it comes to key votes pushed by their base, the people who provide money to politicians, the organizers, the talk show hosts, then the politicians find they are going to have to rally to really satisfy hard-line principles. And in the case of the Republicans, that would be low taxes, small government, not spending to increase the size of the deficit.

So in general, the only recent example, Renee, that I can think of in terms of bipartisanship would be Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cuts. And there you had some conservative Democrats who feared his popularity and the recession. But now, we have few liberal Republicans.

Bill Clinton didn't get one Republican vote during the '93 effort, that deficit cutting bill. And even George W. Bush got little support for his tax cuts in '01. So the key thing here is there few liberal Republican votes left who fear either Obama - President Obama's popularity or the national economic crisis.

MONTAGNE: Although the parties did work together in the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, and also in the vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq. I mean, is going to war the only real uniter these days in Washington?

WILLIAMS: Good point, Renee. You need fear. You need to have the politicians in fear. And the question is, what do they fear? And they fear charges of not being patriotic, as in 9/11 or war, as you were discussing. But also, in the case of not being responsive to a national emergency. And so what you're hearing from Republicans is that we really don't have that national emergency right now because of earlier efforts at stimulus packages and bailouts that haven't exactly satisfied the problem of Wall Street and the economy in general.

MONTAGNE: Now, with the stimulus bill now going to the Senate, are there changes that are likely that would get Republican votes?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's basically tax politics we're talking here. There are some big arguments about whether or not to give tax credits to low-wage workers who pay payroll taxes on Social Security and Medicare. Republicans oppose it, they see it as a welfare payment.

The Senate Democrats are also willing, though, Renee, to employ an alternative minimum tax to hold down taxes for middle-class voters. That's going to increase the size of this package up to $900 billion. That's something Senate Democrats are willing to do, something that appeals to Senate Republicans. So that could get a few more votes because, again, in the Senate, unlike the House, you have more moderate Republicans who are willing - who have that sense of fear and are willing to play ball with President Obama.

MONTAGNE: Juan, are Republicans officially declaring themselves the party of opposition?

WILLIAMS: Well, no question. You know, in the House, Renee, President Obama was up there the other day, and in discussing the lack of bipartisanship, he shook his head and said, old habits die hard. And right now what you see is on the Republican side an effort to blame Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, to portray Democrats as tax-and-spend.

And they're going to go to their retreat this weekend - they're going off to a retreat - and John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House, is going to feel terrifically strong. Because when he gets to Hot Springs, Virginia, he's going to be able to say, I held my troops together.

So Republicans right now are all about saying. we're back to core principles as the party of opposition. Small government, low taxes, defense spending and, of course, abortion. So, that's the key.

MONTAGNE: Well, all right, but let me just ask just briefly here, is there a risk for Republicans at a time the economy, in particular, is in crisis and people are demanding action?

WILLIAMS: Big risk, Renee. And that's what the Democrats are pushing, and President Obama - polls right now show there's about a 49 percent approval for Democrat performance in Congress. And in terms of the 2010 elections, two-to-one preference for Democrats right now among the voters.

On the other hand, the Republicans say, you know what, we are sticking with our base and we're holding to principle, and developing that voice of opposition to this popular Democratic president.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks so much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR News analyst Juan Williams.

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