It might not appear so at first glance, but all sides — and the American people — benefited from passage of the House of Representatives' version of the Obama stimulus plan Wednesday.
President Barack Obama and his senior policy and political advisers were brought up short by the fact that all House Republicans, without exception, voted no on the legislation, joined by 11 Democrats. This has made Obamans recognize that, if bipartisan support is sought to face difficult issues, more than conciliatory words will be necessary. Moreover, the White House cannot again let the policy initiative slip from its own hands into those of Democratic House members eager to push their favorite if unrelated spending programs into a package originally designed to generate immediate economic stimulus and job creation. As other presidents have learned before him, a White House (especially one with a big popular mandate) must define and keep command of the agenda.
And so, many big-dollar provisions of the House plan had nothing whatever to do with economic stimulus or with Obama's original intentions. They were backed-up items on a legislative wish list kept waiting during the eight Bush years.
Over in the Senate, both Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee, and the Senate in general, have been equally sobered. They now find themselves on the spot in developing a package that can gain genuine bipartisan support — or, at a minimum, several Republican votes to go along with a certain Democratic majority.
The version to emanate from the Senate almost surely will lack some of the House spending provisions. It will stress more near-term spending devoted to job creation, and include both business and personal tax cuts beyond those in the House bill.
It would be disastrous both for the Obama White House and for Republicans to repeat the straight-party-line vote in the House. Neither wants a return to the polarizations and angry gridlock of recent years. Both know that a host of difficult issues lie ahead — most immediately, consideration of Phase Two of a financial bailout — which will require broad support across partisan and interest-group lines. Consensus will be important for everyone.
That said, demoralized national Republicans were surprised and heartened to see House Republicans, led by Rep. John Boehner, maintain solidarity when a final vote came on the stimulus package. Going into that vote, realists expected a number of Republicans (perhaps matching the 11 Democrats who voted no) to vote yes. Like a sports team coming off a one-sided loss, House Republicans stuck together, made their arguments on substance, strengthened the leverage of Senate Republicans, and reinforced their political standing. It would have been easy for them to just roll over.
The outlook: A stimulus package, with marginal elements eliminated, still can be expected to emerge from congressional conference committee and reach Obama's desk on or about February 15. Both its tax and spending provisions will be superior to those in the House package. The exercise should put bipartisanship back on track.