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Obama got his stimulus package, but there are lessons to be learned

WASHINGTON — By the measure of any president in recent times, Friday's passage of the largest economic package since the New Deal was a resounding victory for Barack Obama, an impressive display of political muscle and congressional pliability just three weeks, three days into his presidency.

And when the last votes were cast late Friday night, President Obama essentially got exactly what he wanted: A bill worth $787 billion that reflected his center-left priorities for spending, yet also included nearly 40 percent in tax cuts.

"It's a plan that will ignite spending by businesses and consumers, make the investments necessary for lasting economic growth and prosperity, and save or create more than 3.5 million jobs over the next two years," Obama told members of the Business Council, which has advised every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, as the House prepared to vote.

No matter how historic, however, the victory was sullied by a series of follies — earned and unearned — and provided an early lesson in White House-congressional relations for the Democrats, who are learning anew how to govern after winning the presidency, the House and the Senate for the first time in 15 years.

• The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act passed without a single Republican vote in the House (246-183) and only three in the Senate (60-38) — despite Obama's aggressive outreach. Republican leaders pounded the package as a bloated, ineffective sop to the left with ineffective push-back, which some Democrats acknowledge has increased skepticism about the plan among the public.

• Clumsy infighting over spending cuts demanded by the relatively narrow Democratic margin in the Senate nearly caused a revolt among liberal Democrats in the House, just as House and Senate negotiators were gathering to ink the deal. That didn't help instill confidence, analysts say.

• And trouble with some of Obama's Cabinet appointees added to a sense of disarray. Tom Daschle withdrew last week as Obama's pick for health and human services secretary over unpaid taxes. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner then delivered a disappointingly vague plan to Congress for aiding the financial system, sending stocks tumbling. And Thursday, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., announced he would not become commerce secretary after all, citing irreconcilable differences with Obama — including over the stimulus. He then voted against it.

All of which combined to take some of the luster off Friday's passage and speaks to the relative inexperience of the Obama administration, even though the president, vice president and their top aides all came from Capitol Hill.

"Some of it is miscalculations on their part, where you create a set of standards that raise expectations to unbelievable levels," said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. "And then you end up not being able to meet them."

President Obama made another miscalculation, too: As Republicans blitzed the talk shows with charges, some of them false, that the package was packed with frivolous pork like reseeding the National Mall, buying condoms and funding ACORN, the White House largely kept quiet and let the package work through Congress.

Obama enjoys an approval rating of 60 to 70 percent, but he didn't start using his star power to sell the plan until this week, when he held campaign-style town-hall meetings in Florida, Indiana and Illinois. "Our best asset and our best salesperson is President Obama, and when we got out there and started talking about this, the American people stood up right behind him," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Broward County, a member of the House Democratic leadership.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., called it "a lesson the White House will take away from this."

"I think they realize he has to engage, and I think he will," he said.

From the start, Republicans showed they would not be cowed by Obama's popularity or by the public's desire for Washington to address the faltering economy.

Their opposition began to gel when Republicans in the House justifiably complained that Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., cut them out of the process for drafting the bill, although some Republican amendments were eventually adopted. Republicans in the Senate made the same claim, but with less merit.

The Senate version included significant input from Republicans, including $70 billion to prevent middle- and upper-class workers from being hit with the alternative minimum tax. More Republican amendments were added on the floor, including a $15,000 tax credit for home buyers.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also welcomed talks between moderate Republicans and Democrats who were trying to reach a compromise. With 58 votes, Reid needs at least two Republicans to overcome a filibuster, and he and Obama were hoping for a package that could draw significant Republican support.

In the end, only three moderate Republicans agreed to a deal — Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Specter said a Republican colleague told him he would have liked to join him, but he worried about a primary challenge next year.

"I think there are a lot of people in the Republican caucus who are glad to see this action taken without their fingerprints, without their participation," Specter said.

Despite the harsh tone of the debate over the stimulus bill for the past two weeks, members of both parties said Friday it would be a mistake to assume Obama's vision of bipartisanship is dead.

Congress headed home for a weeklong President's Day recess and a badly needed cooling-off period. After, Congress is expected to continue working on ways to shore up the economy, including bills aimed at preventing home foreclosures and regulating the financial markets. Analysts and Democrats said the more bipartisan support such measures draw, the more confidence the public will have in their ability to work. That in itself may help the economy.

Republicans and Democrats alike said both parties and the White House should use the fight over the stimulus bill to discern where opportunities for cooperation collapsed, and how they might avoid it next time.

"I would be hopeful that we would start earlier, and there would be more Republicans who participate," Specter said. He started toward the door of the Senate to vote. "I didn't say it was my expectation, it was my hope."

Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

.how they voted

House, 246-183

Gus Bilirakis,
R-Palm Harbor
No
Ginny
Brown-Waite,

R-Brooksville
No
Adam Putnam,

R-Bartow
No
C.W. Bill Young,

R-Indian Shores
No
Vern Buchanan,

R-Sarasota
No
Kathy Castor,

D-Tampa
Yes

Senate, 60-38

Mel Martinez, R No
Bill Nelson, D Yes

Obama got his stimulus package, but there are lessons to be learned 02/13/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 16, 2009 11:27am]
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