Washington When Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced in early January that there would be no mid-February recess for Congress unless the giant economic stimulus bill demanded by Barack Obama were on its way to the White House, she accomplished two things.
On the positive side, she clearly signaled to Republicans that delaying tactics could cost them vacations and campaign time in their home districts. But conversely, her hard line was a tacit green light to her fellow Democrats to ram the staggeringly expensive piece of legislation through, whatever objections the GOP raised.
Last week the $819 billion tax and spending bill passed the House with all but 11 Democrats supporting it and not a single Republican voting yes. The first important roll call of the Obama presidency looked as bitterly partisan as any of the Bush years.
It was not for lack of effort on the part of the new president. Obama went to the Capitol to visit Republican as well as Democratic lawmakers, and even encouraged the Democratic draftsmen to scrap a couple of egregiously irrelevant spending programs they had penciled into the bill.
But the complaint I heard from Republicans was that Pelosi and her lieutenants, committee chairmen Charlie Rangel and David Obey, had used the tight timetable and their control of legislative procedures to block virtually all efforts to open the bill to compromise.
In the floor debate, Rangel and Obey rebutted the claim effectively, I thought. Nonetheless, there are compelling reasons, both substantive and political, to hope that the Senate consideration of the bill, which begins this week, is far more open, even if that means spending more time than Obama and the Democrats would prefer.
This bill, so much larger than ordinary legislation, even the wartime defense appropriations, is almost certain to be the biggest if not the last weapon the government employs to halt the sickening economic slide that has gripped the country in the past five months. So much is uncertain, and so much is riding on it, that it’s worth taking time to try to get it right.
Professional economists from both the right and left have raised questions that are anything but frivolous about its design. Martin Feldstein, a top Reagan adviser, has questioned the efficacy of the current menu of tax cuts and spending proposals to generate consumer demand and produce jobs. Alice Rivlin, who played a similar role for Bill Clinton, has called for a sharper focus on short-term job growth as distinguished from slow-acting steps for energy independence or health care quality. Even the Congressional Budget Office has challenged how quickly this massive infusion of dollars will be felt in family budgets and the marketplace.
Beyond these policy challenges, there are political considerations that make it really important for Obama to take the time to negotiate for more than token Republican support in the Senate.
Nothing was more central to his victory last fall than his claim that he could break the partisan gridlock in Washington. He wants to be like Ronald Reagan, steering his first economic measures through a Democratic House in 1981, not Bill Clinton, passing his first budget in 1993 without a single Republican vote.
The first way leads to long-term success; the second foretells the early loss of control.
This vote will set a pattern for Obama, one way or the other. He needs a bipartisan majority because, tough as this issue is, harder ones await when he turns to energy, health care and entitlement reform.
The good news is that Obama can find such support in the Senate, if his allies are smart in the way they handle the bill and allow the Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, Lamar Alexander, Chuck Grassley and John McCain, to have a real voice in reshaping it. And then the dozen or so House Republicans who wanted to vote yes before the process turned ugly will finally be able to do so, when the bill comes back to the House.
What Obama can’t allow is for Majority Leader Harry Reid to become impatient and force a showdown or pull the bill off the floor, as Reid did with immigration reform in the last Congress. So much is riding on this — both substantively and politically — it’s worth taking the time to do it right.