Have the Republicans turned a corner?

Republicans faced some difficult decisions in Congress in how to proceed after two successive defeats in national elections and the election of a popular Democratic President.  They needed to find a way to rebuild their credibility as a party of fiscal discipline and common-sense accountability after losing it in a six-year spending spree and several corruption scandals.  Without power to move legislation to the floor in either chamber, though, they had to avoid being hyperpartisan, showing the kind of cooperation that the American public wants while remaining firm on core principles.  The real question is whether the Democrats would give them that chance with their overwhelming control of Congress.

It took them eight whole days:

Obama engaged in an all-out lobbying push for the bill, which is among the most expensive pieces of legislation ever to move through Congress, and marked a big victory for his presidency a little more than a week into his term. He will now turn his attention to the Senate, where Democrats are scheduled to begin debate on the measure on Monday and the price tag is likely to reach $900 billion.

Larger than the combined total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so far, the two-year stimulus plan would provide up to $1,000 per year in tax relief for most families, dramatically increase funding for alternative energy production, and direct more than $300 billion in aid to states to help rebuild schools, provide health care to the poor and reconstruct highways and bridges.

But Obama’s personal salesmanship effort failed to secure a single Republican supporter for the spending plan, which passed on a 244 to 188 vote. Just a day after the president spent more than an hour behind closed doors at the Capitol seeking their support, all 177 House Republicans opposed the measure, arguing that it would spend hundreds of billions of dollars on initiatives that would do little to stimulate the economy. Eleven Democrats opposed the bill.

It’s no big victory; passage of anything with the numbers Obama has in Congress should be assured.  In fact, it’s something of a defeat for Obama, as he lobbied heavily for Republican votes on this package.  Obama met three times with Republican leadership, received warmly each time and even posing for pictures with some of them.  Not only did he fail to gain a single GOP vote, he lost 11 Democrats in the House.

Republicans had no investment in this bill, and the blame for that falls squarely on Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  While Obama met three times with Republican leadership, she refused to meet with her counterparts at all to negotiate on the stimulus.  Her high-handed approach lost Obama any potential Republican support he might have gained as she attempted to stuff a Democrats-only bill down Republican throats.  That’s an odd position to take on something supposedly so important that it required everyone’s support.  It also reveals the real partisan in House leadership.

Politically as well as economically, Republicans made the right choice in refusing to sign onto this stimulus package.  In the first place, only 12% of this bill has any actual stimulus value, and it comes too slowly to help.  The rest, filled mostly with historical Democratic spending priorities for government like family planning, education spending, and poverty programs, should have been handled through normal appropriations and not emergency economic stimulus spending, which it clearly is not.  If this package passes Congress and it works, the Democrats will get all the credit, as Pelosi especially ensured that Republicans couldn’t offer any of their ideas for improvements.  If it fails (and it surely will), the blame falls squarely on Obama, Pelosi, and Harry Reid, which is exactly what Obama hoped to avoid — and why the vote was actually more of a defeat than a victory.

So who did win yesterday?  John Boehner and Eric Cantor, and I’d argue especially Cantor.  He took the first major vote of the Republican wilderness era and managed to score a shutout, despite obvious impulses among some Republicans to appear cooperative with Obama.  They never let their discourse get hyperpartisan, and they continued to offer their own alternatives to the plan as well as invite House Democrats to negotiate the terms of the bill to win their support.  When that failed, the GOP stripped the Democrats of any bipartisan fig leaves, and managed to take eleven Blue Dog Democrats with them.

Some suggested that the Republicans couldn’t oppose it because they’d already lost their credibility on spending and accountability.  That’s rubbish.  One doesn’t regain credibility by refusing to take a stand on principle just because of mistakes made three years ago.  The way to build credibility on principle is to start acting on it.  Let’s hope Senate Republicans figure that out when the bill hits the upper chamber.