The monthlong struggle over the stimulus plan left behind a smoking battlefield of partisanship, but it also set the stage for a political collision on a scale seldom seen in Washington -- a showdown on a succession of even more divisive issues that could shadow the future of the two major parties.
Against the background of the worst economic crisis in three-quarters of a century, Congress passed the $787-billion economic recovery bill without a single GOP vote in the House, and only three Republican votes in the Senate, the bare minimum to avoid a paralyzing filibuster. Economists across the political spectrum widely agree that some sort of federal action on an unprecedented scale is urgently needed.
In effect, the Republicans seemed to bet the future on a daring gambit: By unflinchingly opposing a popular president on the issue Americans care most about, they apparently hope to place responsibility for reviving the economy squarely on Obama’s back.
If his prescriptions fail -- or succeed, but carry unwelcome side effects such as inflation or higher taxes -- the GOP could say “We told you so” and bid for a return to power. If the president succeeds, or if the economy remains mired but voters decide Republicans placed partisan gamesmanship ahead of the public interest, the result could be long-term trouble for the party -- especially its conservative core, which has shaped the present strategy.
Democrats, meantime, displayed an unwonted level of unity with a calculation of their own: that voters would credit them with championing the idea of bipartisanship and not hold it against them if they did not produce it. With the stimulus they used their solid majority to roll over House Republicans, and in the Senate they yielded no more than was necessary to garner three crucial GOP votes.
If Democrats won the opening battle on the stimulus plan, the outcome of the war lies in tougher struggles just ahead: First is Obama’s plan -- promised for this week -- to use the government to help struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure. Next he is to follow up on a blueprint for resuscitating the financial system, a task that is expected to require vast new amounts of taxpayer dollars to help deeply unpopular banks and Wall Street financial institutions.
Still further down the road lies the president’s promise to tackle such huge and controversial issues as healthcare, climate change and energy.
On each of those issues, the stakes will probably be higher because of the polarization displayed on the stimulus bill.
“It is not a good omen,” said G. Calvin Mackenzie, a scholar of the presidency at Colby College in Maine. “Pulling in Republican votes [on health and energy initiatives] will be as hard as what he’s facing now. They worked the Hill, they tried open hands to the Republicans, and still couldn’t get the votes.”
A senior administration official was optimistic that future legislative battles will be more bipartisan and open because other issues will not require the fast-track, urgent action needed for the economic recovery bill.
Calling Republicans’ strategy “unsustainable,” the official warned of political risks that GOP leaders will run if they are as unyielding on other Obama initiatives as they were on the stimulus.
“Republican leaders forced members to vote against their districts and to reject hundreds of billions in tax cuts,” said the official, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss administration strategy publicly.
“They used up a lot of chits,” he said.
Most Republicans took no hand in crafting the enormous bill, brushing aside Democratic concessions such as including more tax cuts than Obama wanted, cutting back expansion of access to Medicaid to help the jobless, and other bows to GOP priorities.
But Republican leaders expressed satisfaction with their decision to make the stimulus plan an almost entirely Democratic formulation.
“There is a high level of comfort among House and Senate Republicans with where we are politically on this issue,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Whatever the ultimate outcome, the debate upended many Washington assumptions about what the Obama era would be like. Many political analysts expected Republicans to be cowed by the new president’s popularity and loath to oppose him aggressively at a moment of crisis. They were not.
Some Democrats worried that Obama would have trouble keeping his own troops in line, as past Democratic Presidents Carter and Clinton did when Congress was controlled by their own party. He did not.
Some Democrats were also uncertain whether Obama’s talk about bipartisanship would keep him from playing hardball. It did not.
Through it all, Obama may have failed to win support from Republicans, and the opening rollout of his fiscal policy rattled the stock market. But he has been retaining the support of the public. A recent Gallup poll found that 67% of Americans approved of the way he was handling the stimulus bill; 31% approved of congressional Republicans’ performance and 48% approved of congressional Democrats’.
Other Obama initiatives will be shadowed by the economic debate in another striking way: The $787-billion price tag -- along with the expected $1-trillion-plus cost to bail out the financial services industry -- has increased concern about the ballooning federal deficit and may lead to more second-guessing of other priorities.
On the other hand, having visited the $1-trillion threshold, the $100-billion-plus cost of Obama’s healthcare plan may look like a rounding error.
‘Nothing is easy’
The stimulus debate gave important hints about how difficult the push for comprehensive healthcare legislation will be. Fights erupted over health provisions in the stimulus bill that had been considered consensus items: creating a nationwide system of electronic medical records, and comparative research about which medical treatments work best.
There also was tension -- even among Democrats -- about efforts to expand Medicaid, which critics said was a step toward creating government-run healthcare.
“The lesson here is that in healthcare nothing is easy, simple or widely agreed,” said Robert Laszewski, a health policy consultant.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, predicts Democrats will have more success attracting Republican support if their initiatives are presented as individual proposals rather than sweeping packages like the stimulus bill.
He pointed to the January vote to expand children’s health insurance coverage, which garnered support from 40 Republicans. He expects a big bipartisan margin in an upcoming vote on a bill to require utilities to generate more electricity from cleaner energy sources.
“As you take out each individual part, you get a response,” said Markey. “People hate government but love the programs.”
In climate change legislation, Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) predicted that united Republicans would be able to block Obama’s approach to curbing greenhouse gas emissions through a cap-and-trade system.
Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the liberal Center for American Progress, said a key barometer of whether Republicans will engage on the issue is whether Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) joins the search for a compromise. He has supported curbs on gas emissions, but not as strict as those in Obama’s plan.
And GOP leader McConnell left himself and his party an escape hatch, arguing that Republicans’ strategy in the future will be dictated by whether Obama and congressional Democrats are more receptive to GOP views than they were on the economic recovery plan.
“Obviously the president concluded it was easier to pick off a couple Republicans” rather than make big concessions to Republicans, McConnell said. “If he tries to go down the genuine middle, we’re willing to engage.”
Noam N. Levey contributed to this report.