The Stimulus Bill's Bumpy Ride

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Alex Wong / Getty Images

Republican Senator Robert Bennett of Utah, center, speaks at a news conference on the economic-stimulus package on Jan. 29

Change, it turns out, is easier to believe in than make happen.

Consider the events of the past two weeks: President Barack Obama, fresh from sky-high approval ratings and an Inauguration that filled the National Mall, met with Republicans in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Disowning any "pride of authorship," he asked both publicly and privately for the two major political parties to work together in Congress on a crucial bill to stimulate the tanking economy. And what happened? While the bill passed by a comfortable margin in the House, it earned not a single vote from a Republican. What's more, 11 Democrats opposed it as well. (See pictures of Obama's Inauguration.)

The White House response to this disappointment was to ask for more time. "Look, old habits die hard in this town. We get that," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs at a press briefing on Thursday. "But the President understands that changing the way Washington works isn't likely to happen in just 10 days."

The vote Wednesday night was just the first step in the three-part sausage-making process that will create a bill for the President to sign. Next comes a vote on a different bill in the Senate, probably next Tuesday, followed by more than a week of meetings between House and Senate leaders, when a compromise bill will be worked out for another vote in both bodies. But the stakes remain high for the Obama White House and Obama's promise of a new direction in Washington. With just days to go before a likely final vote on the package, it remains unclear if the President or congressional leaders have the willingness or political motivation to make the compromises that would change what is now a Democratic stimulus effort into a legitimately bipartisan one. (See who's who in Obama's White House.)

Republicans say they want a dramatic overhaul of the bill, stripping out certain offending projects and focusing more on tax cuts. Congressional Democrats, who have the power to pass the bill with a minimum of Republican support, are for now holding fast to their initial plans, which have been drafted largely without Republican input. Obama has been struggling to find some middle ground, repeatedly instructing Democratic leaders to jettison the most controversial provisions, like money for state family-planning funding. As it stands, all three sides have yet to find a way to move beyond the rhetoric of bipartisanship; there is a deep distrust, and a great deal of political calculation, dictating the moves on all sides.

Obama advisers say there is still plenty of time to create a bill that can attract more Republican support. "I think you will see it get better," Vice President Joe Biden said in an interview Thursday on CNBC. "And I also think you will see Republicans voting for it." House Republican leaders also claim to be optimistic that a better compromise can be created. Just hours after the House vote Wednesday night, Representative John Boehner, who leads the GOP caucus, joined Obama at a White House cocktail reception. According to aides, Boehner told the President not to take the House vote as a personal rebuke. It was, he told Obama, instead a rebuke of the bill presented by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Many Republicans say their opposition to the bill is based on a suspicion that Democrats are using the economic crisis to push forward a partisan agenda. Their list of objections, which has been e-mailed to reporters, includes a number of targeted items that offend Republican constituencies: $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts; $150 million to insure honey-bee farmers; $335 million for preventing sexually transmitted diseases; $150 million for repairs to the Smithsonian Institution; $462 million for equipment and construction at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta; $20 million to remove fish barriers in rivers; and $25 million to clear off-road trails, to name a few. (See the 10 most outrageous earmarks for government spending.)

Republicans are hopeful that they can get some of these projects expunged before final passage. "We fully expect that Obama will work with us on some of this stuff; it's in his interest to," said a GOP Senate leadership aide. "He gets to seem presidential and bipartisan at relatively little cost." The more items that get taken out, the better chance Obama has to gain Republican support for the bill. In this scenario, Republicans would get to claim victory as well, telling their constituents that they fought the good fight in the name of fiscal conservatism. "We were going to lose no matter what," the aide said. "This bill will pass. The better it is, the less we lose."

At the same time, Republicans have a major political incentive to resist working with Obama and the Democrats. Few economists predict that the economy will be fully recovered by the 2010 election, with or without the stimulus, making it all but certain that Republicans will run for re-election against Obama's economic record. Already, such campaign rhetoric has been seeping into the debate. "The only thing this bill will stimulate is more government and more debt," said Representative Mike Pence, a conservative leader. (See pictures of John McCain's presidential campaign.)

The best opportunity for Obama to broker a compromise will probably be during negotiations between the House and the Senate to hammer out a single piece of legislation. But on Thursday, Gibbs declined to commit Obama to direct involvement in those negotiations. "I don't think I would close the door in any way that he'll get involved," Gibbs said instead.

This is, it must be said, exactly how things have always worked in Washington. Competing interests feel each other out in public comments, trying to figure out how to balance the public interest with their own political interests. What is different this time is the presence of a President who is calling for transformation, not just of the policies but also of the process. Though the early efforts have not proved fruitful, Obama's team members say they will not be dissuaded. "Sometimes it might not all look like it pays off at the beginning," Gibbs said on Thurdsay. "But I think the President believes that time that he spent here and on Capitol Hill talking to members was time well spent." The clock, however, is ticking.

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