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Stimulus battle exposes partisan rifts

By Richard Lister
BBC News, Washington

Steny Hoyer (l), Nancy Pelosi (c) and Charles Rangel (r) after the House voted to approve the bill, 13 Feb
Democrats in the House passed the bill without any Republican support
Two cheers for the stimulus bill!

The vast majority of Republicans hate it, many Democrats and economists think it does not match the scale of the crisis, and instead of the bipartisan consensus he hoped to reach with his political opponents, President Barack Obama got a slap in the face.

The knock-down drag-out battle over this legislation has revealed the deep ideological rifts in the US Congress, and delivered a wake-up call to the new president.

Despite his huge personal popularity and Democratic majorities in both Congressional chambers, Republicans seem determined to take him on, and he is always going to have to win the support of one or two, to get his legislative agenda through.

The House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer summed it up neatly at the National Press Club in Washington when he said the $787bn (548bn) price tag on the stimulus bill "was not a scientific number, but a political one", because "three Republicans set that as the limit of what they would vote for".

The party may have been comprehensively thrashed in the last election (a fact which Democrats never tire of pointing out) but Congressional Republicans made a conscious decision not to get out of the way of the Obama juggernaut.

They are a more conservative group than they were, as many Republican moderates either retired or lost their seats in November.

Those that remain are more inclined to go back to their small government, low-tax, low-spending roots as a way of re-establishing their party's identity.

Bruised feelings

But Democrats are in no mood for lectures about fiscal restraint from a party which inherited a budget surplus from President Bill Clinton and handed over a record trillion dollar deficit to Mr Obama.

Senator John McCain
John McCain has seemed particularly bitter in his speeches against the bill
The cordial atmosphere which seemed to exist at the start of the Congressional session was gradually replaced by the usual animosities as the debate on the stimulus continued.

Of course, all recent presidents have come into office promising to end such partisan bickering in Washington (remember President Bush pledging to be a "uniter, not a divider"?).

The reality is that Congressional party leaders have their own ideas about how much they are prepared to compromise and on the back of such a decisive election, Democrats have increasingly interpreted "bipartisan" as meaning that Republicans must accept what is presented to them.

Democrats - and particularly those in the House - are annoyed about having to give ground to please a handful of moderate Republicans.

But there are plenty of bruised feelings to go round - Senator John McCain has seemed particularly bitter in his Senate-floor speeches, and it was probably always unrealistic to expect Republicans to put their political principles aside as they debated the most expensive stimulus bill ever to come before Congress.

Hard-nosed calculation

So when the dust clears, what happens next?

Barack Obama, 13 Feb
President Obama says he will still leave the door open for Republicans
Well, the White House says Mr Obama will continue to leave his door open for Republicans, but they have so far chosen to come to his parties without bringing a bottle.

So, expect a little less talk about consensus politics, and a little more hard-nosed calculation from the outset about how far he and the Democratic leadership can push their agenda while still retaining the minimal Republican support they need.

Expect Mr Obama to go back on the campaign trail a bit more too. His warm welcome in Indiana, Florida and Illinois as he promoted the stimulus bill reminded his opponents that he is still surfing a tidal wave of support.

In fact, 67% of those surveyed in a recent Gallup poll supported his stimulus efforts, compared to just 31% who backed the Republicans' approach.

Those numbers could easily change, though, if this massive stimulus fails to deliver.

Mr Obama has admitted that the success of his presidency is riding on it, and Republicans know their opposition to it leaves them well-placed in the next elections if the promised jobs do not appear.

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