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Bi-partisan hopes fail first test

By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Washington

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi smiled when she declared that the massive $819bn economic stimulus package had been approved by the House of Representatives.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
Nancy Pelosi's smiles weren't shared by Republicans
Democrats cheered.

But Republicans remained silent - not one had voted in favour of the bill.

You can only wonder what was the reaction in the White House.

Perhaps there was relief that a new president had overcome his first major hurdle in Congress, but surely also frustration that Barack Obama's charm offensive had counted for little.

His efforts to win round Republicans in a series of conciliatory face-to-face meetings had ultimately proved futile.

His hopes and claims of an end to bitter bipartisan division - a new political spring - has been hit by the cold, harsh realities of business as usual on Capitol Hill.

Once bitten, twice shy

Asking Americans to stump up another $800bn, on top of the $700bn already requested by President Bush, was always going to be a hard sell.

President Barack Obama after talks with Republicans in the House of Representatives
The president had gone to talk directly to House Republicans
This was particularly the case for Republicans who feel like they are selling their soul and ditching their principles by allowing the state to rescue the world's most powerful free market economy.

It wasn't just the astronomic price tag. It was the bill's focus on government intervention.

Many Republicans still feel a sense of shame in backing the earlier bailout for the banks. Now it's a case of once bitten, twice shy.

Barack Obama had worked hard, even before he entered the White House, to try to overcome their obvious concerns.

He hoped Republicans' natural scepticism could be erased by the promise of tax cuts: $275bn will go towards easing the tax burden on low and middle income earners.

But there is still the $40bn to be spent on improving America's crumbling infrastructure, the $41bn for education, tens of billions more for health care and energy efficiency.

More eyebrows were raised with the inclusion of $300m to combat sexually transmitted diseases and $50m for the arts.

Democrats had the sense to drop requests to spend millions on tarting up Washington's Mall.

Still listening

But Republicans still balked with dismissive words like "welfare state" and " government waste".

And it is not just a matter of ideology, or party petulance.

Many still wonder whether the stimulus will actually work. Why get their hands dirty, when they won't even get any of the credit if the grand plan does succeed in creating 3m plus jobs?

It's still a huge gamble.

What we can't do is to drag our feet or allow the same partisan differences to get in our way
Barack Obama
In one sense it doesn't matter that the Republicans unanimously rejected the bill - Barack Obama is still on course to get the backing of the Senate.

But by opposing the bill the Republicans are making clear to the country that this is not their plan. It is owned by the Democrats and the president alone.

Barack Obama has not given up on his hopes of ending the "bitter bi-partisanship" of the Bush era.

He is still promising more transparency than ever before with "every American able to go to the website recovery.gov to see how and where the money is being spent".

Despite the Republican opposition he thanked the House, reiterated the importance of passing the bill and promised to continue listening.

"What we can't do" he said "is to drag our feet or allow the same partisan differences to get in our way."

But after tonight his promises of a new political era, a spirit of "we're all in this together", may sound a little hollow.



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