House approves stimulus

Obama gets victory with no support from GOP

By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / January 29, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The House of Representatives approved an $819 billion economic-stimulus package by a largely party-line vote yesterday, extending an early legislative victory to President Obama while failing to follow his pledge to preside over a new era of bipartisan consensus.

The bill passed by a vote of 244 to 188, with no Republican support and 11 Democrats voting against it. Members of both parties said that despite Obama's overtures to Republicans - including a trip this week to Capitol Hill to woo members in person - the congressional leadership of both parties approached the stimulus legislation with the same unrelenting partisan tactics Obama attacked during his campaign and inaugural address.

"It's really not a bipartisan process so I don't think you can expect a bipartisan vote," said Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican. "If the president had his druthers, we would be included. . . . But they've locked us out. We've seen a very heavy-handed leadership on this."

Yesterday's vote to approve the package of $275 billion in individual and business tax cuts and $544 billion in new spending - too much spending, according to the Republican minority - showed that Obama could get his way on major issues without the type of cross-party support he had hoped to get on a bill he has described as crucial to the country's economic recovery.

Yet if Obama hoped to win Re publican backing for future proposals, legislators said, he would have to push the Democratic leadership to be more accommodating to the minority party.

"You can't fault Barack for not reaching out. He's reached out certainly more than any president in modern history," said Representative Jim Cooper, a conservative Tennessee Democrat who voted against the bill.

"You'll gradually see the leadership being more inclusive and bipartisan, but Barack is leading the way. . . . It might not succeed on the first engagement, but it will pay off in the future."

The bill, which includes new funding for food stamps, digital health records, and new energy technologies, among many other provisions, will move on to the Senate, where it could grow to more than $1 trillion by the time it comes up for a likely vote next week. Legislators remained optimistic that a final version of the legislation could reach the White House by the time Congress plans to adjourn for its Presidents' Day recess in mid-February.

"I hope that we can continue to strengthen this plan before it gets to my desk," Obama said in a statement minutes after passage. "But what we can't do is drag our feet or allow the same partisan differences to get in our way."

House Republican leaders proved successful at rallying their shrunken minority to stand united against a bill they described as too wasteful, built around traditional Democratic fiscal priorities unrelated to economic recovery. Eleven Democrats, primarily from conservative rural districts, joined them.

"It's politics as usual on Capitol Hill, even as the president is trying to breathe a breath of bipartisanship into the city," said Indiana Representative Mike Pence, chairman of the House Republican Conference. "I really believe that the president is sincere in his desire to bring all the best ideas to the table. Coming and talking to Republicans was a very helpful first step."

In the hours leading up to the bill's passage, members marched through a series of Republican amendments, voting primarily along party lines against efforts to strip all spending provisions from the bill and one to remove Amtrak funding, among others. Republican leaders complained that Democratic rules limited their ability to affect the bill's composition.

"The bottom line is we are voting on their amendments," said Representative James McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, waving the text of one such proposal between votes.

"The fact that they are not getting their way does not mean there isn't a bipartisan process. It means the majority in this Congress doesn't want to accept failed policy."

In the Senate, the minority party has the power to block legislation with a filibuster, suggesting that GOP amendments may get a better reception than in the House.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who spoke last week in more conciliatory tones than his House counterparts about his interest in promoting "bipartisan solutions over partisan failures," began to echo their resolve in challenging the Democrats. "The stimulus package I think is drifting off in the wrong direction," he said in a brief interview yesterday.

The package that passed the House already showed the result of some efforts at compromise. It included a collection of tax cuts opposed by many liberal Democrats, and lacked funds for a new contraceptive program whose removal Obama requested out of concern that it unnecessarily provoked opposition from some conservatives.

"There are some items in there that came about as a result of bipartisanship," Representative Joe Sestak, a Pennsylvania Democrat. "What I'd like to see is not just Mr. Obama reaching across. I'd like to see the titans [of both parties] doing more internally."

Yet the ruling titans offered little regret for the way they got the legislation through. In a press conference hours before the vote, Democratic leaders were defiant that the election had given them a mandate for their priorities, and that they were under no burden to acquiesce to Republican complaints.

"We will not compromise in responding to the needs of the American people," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "The Republicans are talking about process. When you lose on substance, what do you do?"

After spending the day sparring over tactics in competing sessions with reporters, congressional leaders prepared to head to the White House, where Obama hosted them for what aides characterized as a bipartisan session of drinks and snacks.

Obama's efforts at outreach provoked a mixed response from Republicans, who praised the popular new president even as they mounted a quixotic challenge to his flagship proposal. Taking the House floor to argue against the stimulus bill, Illinois Republican Peter Roskam began his remarks by quoting from last week's inaugural address, which he called "poignant" and "beautiful."

"They don't know how to accept his offer of bipartisanship. They're too used to fighting. I don't think this surprises Barack or will deter him from future efforts," Cooper said of his Republican colleagues. "If you listen to them, they might not vote the right way but they're flattered he reached out."

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