ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. President Obama and Senate Republicans today agreed to try to work on a compromise on the $800 billion economic stimulus package. The House version passed yesterday without a single Republican vote. A Senate vote could come on Monday. We'll talk with the leading Republican senator in a few minutes.
But first, for all the talk of changing the tone in Washington, last night's vote was starkly partisan. NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson examines the strategy of House Republicans as they settle into the role of loyal opposition.
MARA LIASSON: President Obama himself clearly expected more support from Republicans. Here's what he said on the eve of the vote.
President BARACK OBAMA: We're not going to get 100 percent agreement, and we might not even get 50 percent agreement.
LIASSON: In the end, of course, Mr. 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 emailed press release. But Congressman Jim Gerlach wasn't scared. And if there's a Republican who should be, it's him.
Representative JIM GERLACH (Republican, Pennsylvania): My district is a Democrat district in southeastern Pennsylvania. And President Obama did very well there. He won 58, 59 percent.
LIASSON: But Gerlach hasn't been getting pressure from his constituents. On the contrary...
Representative GERLACH: On the particular economic stimulus package we voted yesterday, the calls and emails we got into our offices were really about three or four to one against the bill.
LIASSON: 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 today. 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 today calling the bill as currently written an $800 billion mistake. And the man who used to run the House Republican campaign committee, former Congressman Tom Davis, sees absolutely no risk to Republicans to oppose this iteration of the bill.
Former Representative TOM DAVIS (Republican, Virginia): For the base, in terms of defining Republicans, a no vote here allows you to go back to our old deficit hawk mantra. 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.
LIASSON: 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, quote, "strengthened" to get more Republican votes. And when it comes back to the House, some GOP members may get to have it both ways. Here's Tom Davis, again.
Former Representative DAVIS: 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 this. You can get bragging rights to pieces of this if appropriate modifications are made.
LIASSON: For now, the Republican strategy is to praise President Obama and aim their fire at the House Democratic leadership. Here's Michigan Republican Dave Camp.
Representative DAVE CAMP (Republican, Michigan): It was very impressive that he came to the Congress and met with us. He was certainly very forthright, but this is Nancy Pelosi's bill, no input from Republicans, no meetings, no amendments accepted in committee.
LIASSON: All that praise for the president isn't just political spin says Davis, it's sincere. Mr. Obama could end up being more personally popular among House Republicans than his predecessor.
Former Representative DAVIS: 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, I think, over the first two or three weeks than Bush probably did in a year.
LIASSON: As for long-term political calculations, both sides appear to be acting according to their interests. Mr. Obama gets lots of points from the public for trying so hard to change the tone and lots of goodwill from Republicans for reaching out, and that should help him on the next big battles.
Unlike the stimulus, which involves the relatively easy task of spending lots of money and cutting taxes, what comes next - health care, energy and entitlement reform, require hard political choices, and they 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 into their new roles in the unfamiliar world of civilized partisan warfare. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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