Bipartisanship, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder.
To President Barack Obama and the Democrats, it lies in bringing rival Republicans into the discussion of how to construct a multibillion-dollar stimulus package and tweaking it to attract more GOP votes. To most Republicans, it seems to mean accepting their ideas.
In any case, the way the congressional process has unfolded over Obama’s massive economic stimulus plan illustrates how hard it may be for him to overcome years of bitter partisanship.
Since his election, Obama has tried hard to establish what some call a post-partisan tone while pushing to fulfill many of his generally liberal promises. In filling key jobs, he has conspicuously failed to match campaign promises of an administration with a significant number of Republicans.
Beyond that, however, Obama has reached out to Republicans in hopes of establishing a working relationship and enlisting significant GOP support for his proposals.
He conspicuously wooed his defeated presidential rival, Sen. John McCain; he convened an early White House session with the bipartisan congressional leadership; and he went to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to meet with House and Senate Republicans.
Accommodations on policy have been more modest. The White House increased the proportion of its package for tax cuts at Republicans’ behest and indicated openness to Senate GOP proposals to protect middle-class taxpayers from the alternative minimum tax and encourage small-business employment.
Meanwhile, the White House continued to portray the president as open to further changes. “We don’t have pride of authorship,” press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
But neither the effort to listen to Republicans nor apparent willingness to make changes has attracted much GOP support so far, especially in the House. Indeed, GOP reaction has been consistently critical, on three main grounds.
•One is the proposal’s size. “Oh, my God,” was House GOP leader John Boehner’s reaction, upon learning that the Democrats’ package totaled $825 billion. Other House GOP leaders and prominent Senate Republicans, including McCain, chimed in – even as some Democrats said it wasn’t big enough.
•Another is how quickly the funds can have the required effect in spurring the economy.
•And a third has been the fact Democrats included funds for programs they say will spur long-term growth and for others not specifically designed to create jobs.
The GOP poster child: A $200 million provision for family planning and contraceptives, one of several provisions using the bill to bolster favored Democratic programs. It since has been dropped and may be followed by other provisions easily derided as “pork.” But the GOP’s bottom line seems to be that the Democrats didn’t accept enough of their ideas.
The goal, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence said, should be “taking the best ideas from the party that won the majority, from the administration and from the minority that represents, you know, some 100 million Americans. … That’s not happening here.”
But as Obama told House GOP Whip Eric Cantor in a pointed exchange, that’s a fight Republicans lost in November.
So in Wednesday’s first House test, GOP lawmakers generally opposed the Democratic package – and risked looking partisan by resisting the popular new president’s first big effort to spur the economy.
Fortunately for them, they’ll probably get to vote on a revised version after the Senate acts, giving them another chance to embrace the post-partisanship most Americans say they want.
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