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Obama's Push for a Bipartisan Stimulus Plan Leaves Some Democrats Wary

By Joseph J. Schatz, CQ Staff

JANUARY 16, 2009 -- As President-elect Barack Obama urges Congress to advance an economic stimulus plan that will win Republican votes, Democratic leaders writing the legislation face a question: How bipartisan is bipartisan enough?

House Democrats have the votes to pass a stimulus package of their liking in their chamber and could ignore Republicans. In the Senate, Democrats now have 58 in their caucus, meaning they need to pick off a few Republicans to get their way.

But the Obama team is talking about a plan that could win as many as 80 votes in the Senate. That would require bringing on board a significant number of Republicans—an effort that Obama began last week by making it clear that he wants about 40 percent of the stimulus plan's cost devoted to providing tax breaks for individuals and businesses.

Winning GOP support—by adding tax breaks and keeping the total stimulus price tag near Obama's $775 billion target—could mean sacrificing some Democratic priorities.

"I think what makes it hard is that everything that is additive in terms of getting political support among Republicans is probably dilutive in terms of getting Democrats," said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, a Republican who resides at the intersection that could make the difference between a 60-vote victory and an 80-vote landslide. "And I just think that 80 in the Senate is a very ambitious goal, knowing that you have to get to a significant amount of tax relief to do that. . . . That's the really tough needle he's got to thread."

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., laid the odds with Obama. "The package of tax cuts is probably the most important thing he did in terms of getting Republican support," Graham said. "I think he could get 80 votes."

'A Balancing Act'

Whether Democratic leaders, tax writers and appropriators pursue large numbers of GOP votes, or simply push through a package that can pass in both chambers with minimal minority support, will soon become apparent. Committees in both chambers are moving toward markups next week.<?p>

The Obama team has publicly cast the stimulus effort in non-ideological terms and argues it is not doing anything for the sole purpose of attracting Republican votes. But Republican and Democratic members of Congress have different ideas about spending and taxes and how to stimulate the economy. It remains possible that few Republicans will vote "yes," even if Democrats grant them significant concessions.

Some liberals, including Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., say Democratic leaders have already done too much to placate Republicans. "I think we ought to aim much, much higher," Kennedy said Thursday after seeing House Democratic leaders' $825 billion stimulus proposal, including $550 billion in spending and $275 billion in tax cuts. "We're being a little too politically sensitive to the conservative right and their harping on deficits. Coming to the middle on a political spectrum does not make it right."

While Obama's economic advisers have already dropped one piece of their plan—a tax credit for companies that hire or avoid laying off workers—they say other proposed business tax breaks would create jobs more quickly in the near-term than infrastructure projects.

"This is a balancing act," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., arguing that Obama is trying to set a precedent that will win him GOP cooperation if, as expected, Democrats try to overhaul the health care system and advance other contentious measures later in the session. "What the president-elect is trying to do is set a tone not only for this legislation but for legislation in the future."

Republicans Regroup

The dynamic is in plain view as Democrats strive to put their imprint on Obama's emerging stimulus proposal, and as the smaller, post-election Republican caucus struggles with how to respond to the popular president-elect.

Some conservative Republicans have blasted the emerging proposal's hundreds of billions of dollars for infrastructure spending. An alternative proposal from the conservative House Republican Study Committee consists entirely of tax cuts.

Others, including GOP leaders, have reacted more cautiously, supporting the tax cuts but questioning the details and warning against adding large amounts of spending. But it's clear they are relying on Obama to bring them into the negotiation—not congressional Democrats.

"The president-elect has reached out to us as far as advocating putting more money into the pockets of those who spend and invest it, create incentives for long-term investment and job creation. That is music to the ears of House Republicans," Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., said.

But Cantor said he does not know if House Democratic leaders share that sentiment. "As far as our colleagues on the Hill, we'll have to see how they respond and exactly what is in the package," Cantor said.

Democrats on Board

While many Senate Democrats have questioned the job-creation value of Obama's business tax proposals, and the size of the tax cut component compared to the spending package, the stimulus plans remain on track. But the complaints demonstrate the difficulty of Obama's goal, said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri. "There's been some pushback from the Democratic Caucus on how willing he is to embrace some of the ideas put forth by Republicans on tax cuts," McCaskill said. "I hope he continues to stand his ground."

Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, warns that policy—not vote totals—should drive the process. "I wouldn't sacrifice anything to get 80 votes in the Senate," he said. "I would disagree with that goal."

Still, congressional Democrats may also have an interest in making the stimulus a bipartisan affair—particularly if it fails to improve the economy. "This is something you want multiple ownership of," Graham noted.

Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., argues that in seeking Republican support, Obama is avoiding strategic missteps made by former President Bill Clinton in his initial dealings with a Democratic Congress. The Obama team wants to get GOP support "so that it's Congress acting to solve a national" Davis said.

Richard Rubin and Edward Epstein contributed to this story.

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