Washington Matters


The Price of Bipartisanship


President Obama goes to Capitol Hill today to urge Republicans to support his $825 billion stimulus package, but when the House votes on Wednesday, the bill is likely to pass with minimal -- maybe even no -- Republican votes. Don't assume, though, that Obama has failed.

Obama campaigned and seems committed to restoring some level of bipartisanship. No one is in a better position to do that. He won the presidency by the biggest margin in 20 years in an election in which both parties promised to cooperate. Voters make it overwhelmingly clear that they're tired of politics-as-usual. Obama's 70% approval rating doesn't hurt either.

But no one should underestimate the difficulty of what the new president is trying to do. Bringing a substantial level of party cooperation means reversing well over 20 years of history in which congressional Republicans and Democrats have been at each others' throats. Other obstacles include fundamental ideological disagreements and the cold hard facts of Washington politics -- namely that as soon as the votes are counted in one election, the winning party begins plotting how to hold onto power and the loser begins figuring out how to get it back. That leaves little time to consider the real national interest -- unless crisis or voter outrage focuses the attention of lawmakers. On top of that, the Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008 often came at the expense of moderate Republicans -- those most likely to work with Obama.

The stimulus is an interesting test for both sides. The Democrats clearly have enough votes to force a bill through, but Obama doesn't want to pass a bill without Republican support -- and things in it that are supported by Republicans. He's already reached out, calling dozens of GOP lawmakers, many of whom readily admit that he's trying harder to include them than the Bush administration ever did.

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Some Democrats ask why he even cares. They distrust GOP motives and think there's no acceptable compromise that both sides can accept. Obama doesn't buy that. And while he knows he can pass this bill with GOP votes, he also knows there are trickier bills coming -- more bailout money, for one -- that likely will require GOP support. And how he deals with Republicans on the stimulus will have a lot to do with how good his relationship will be with them in the future.

The House GOP is being a little unfair in saying they weren't consulted on the bill the Democrats are pushing. Obama embraced many of their ideas in his original proposal, including devoting 40% of the cost to tax cuts. House Democrats cut that back to 33% but Obama fought and won to keep several business tax cuts in the bill over Democratic opposition, including an important loss carryback provision. In turn, he bought into some longstanding Democratic agenda items that have nothing to do with stimulating the economy in the short term.

The GOP is now pressing for more. Some of their ideas may win acceptance in the Senate, but the Republicans need to be realistic. Their call for cutting the bottom tax rates is a nonstarter because it would be permanent and because it would be another tax cut for the wealthy as well as low- and middle-class voters.

Ultimately, everyone involved will have to make a choice. Republicans will have to decide whether the concessions the Democrats are willing to make are enough to win their vote -- and if not, whether they want to risk being seen as obstructionist. Obama will have to decide how much pressure he wants to put on Democrats to win Republican support -- and whether that will hurt him down the road. And Democrats will decide whether they want to stick it to Republicans (they won, after all) -- and not worry about the consequences. And everyone will have to weigh what matters most to them -- ideology, the need to demonstrate they can work together to tackle the economy or the desire to score political points that may help in the next election.

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