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Seeking political traction, Republicans are using the economic stimulus package to try to restore an image of fiscal discipline tarnished by a free-spending GOP Congress under former President George W. Bush.
The return to what many Republicans consider their small-government, tax-cut roots is driving unity in a party that now lacks power in the White House and in the Democratic-controlled House and Senate.
Only three Republicans — Senate moderates — voted for the $787 billion measure aimed at pulling the country out of recession. The rest assailed it as filled with pet projects, too light on tax cuts, and too quickly pushed through Capitol Hill.
It’s "a long wish list of big government spending that won’t work. It won’t create jobs. It won’t stimulate this economy. And it may do more harm than good," Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., declared after opposing the bill.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., was quick to pounce, saying, "It is sending an entirely wrong signal to the American people to be banking on failure."
President Barack Obama plans to sign the legislation — an unprecedented blend of government spending and tax cuts — on Tuesday in Colorado. His action is sure to spark another round of outcry from Republicans.
The GOP’s strategy of emphasizing its so-called bedrock principles — restrained spending, limited government and deep tax cuts — comes as the party works to rehabilitate itself after eight years of Bush’s leadership and rebound from back-to-back elections that saw Republicans lose their grip on Congress and the White House.
It carries both potential opportunities and risks.
A message of fiscal discipline is a surefire energizer for the party’s long dispirited conservative base, party faithful who will be critical foot soldiers for the GOP’s fundraising and organizing efforts in next year’s midterm congressional elections and beyond.
In normal times, it also can be a relatively simple sell to voters: Who doesn’t want more money in their pockets and less in the government’s hands?
But once the economy turns around, Republicans could easily be cast as modern-day Herbert Hoovers who wanted to do nothing — even though the GOP presented its own stimulus plans, which were heavier on tax cuts and lighter on government spending.
Republicans also leave themselves vulnerable to criticism that tax cuts on the GOP’s watch contributed to the recession. And they could invite charges of hypocrisy, given that government spending ballooned when Bush and his GOP were at the helm.
Nevertheless, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio downplays any notion of a political risk.
"Standing on principle and doing the right things for the right reasons, on behalf of your constituents, will never get you in trouble," he said.
But Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y., predicted the GOP will be punished.
"I really don’t think that the position that they’ve taken politically is good for the nation — and I think the nation will speak out against it," he said.
As the legislation wound its way through Congress and to the president’s desk, Republicans coalesced around opposition to the plan.
They banged the drum of limited government, deep tax cuts and restrained spending. They cast the Democratic measure as a big-spending bill packed with political pork that wouldn’t create jobs or jump-start the economy. And they argued it was a raw deal for taxpayers that would hurt generations to come.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona — the Republican presidential nominee in 2008 — used his disgust with the legislation to reassert himself among his GOP colleagues. Potential 2012 presidential candidates, like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, made the TV news and talk radio rounds blasting the plan as a big-government boondoggle.
Initially, Obama aggressively and personally courted Republicans in hopes of bipartisan support. He signed off on changes to the plan, like tax breaks for small businesses, in hopes of winning some GOP votes.
But then Boehner got all House Republicans to oppose the original bill. Instead, they offered an alternative measure. It was defeated.
In the Senate, Republicans dropped out of bipartisan discussions as it became clear that the price tag would remain in the ballpark of $800 billion. They, too, offered their own measure. But it, too, went nowhere.
In the end, Obama dropped his bipartisan talk and pushed hard for a final approval — without Republicans if necessary.
Three moderate GOP senators broke ranks — Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — and voted with Democrats.