Editors' Note: This piece has been corrected.
Congress-watchers tried to read the future after the House vote in late January on the centerpiece of President Barack Obama's legislative agenda, his economic stimulus package. Unsurprisingly, no Republican representatives supported the bill. Eleven Democrats crossed party lines to oppose the legislation.
Why those 11? Most were fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, but nine of them were from districts John McCain won last fall. Reports in the press made much of this to explain the members' votes. But analysts weren't paying much attention to a similarly telling vote that came a month earlier, when 40 Republicans crossed party lines to support an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) -- half of those who switched their votes (or voted on the bill for first time) had seen Obama win their district. Democrats in McCain districts shouldn't be the only category of analysis for congressional votes; pundits need to start looking at Republicans -- 37 in the House and nine in the Senate -- whose districts were won by President Barack Obama on Election Day.
"[Representative Thad] McCotter voted for the S-CHIP package this time and against it the last time," says Tim Sahd, National Journal's House analyst. "In 2007, voting for S-CHIP as a Republican would mean that you were taking the heart and soul of the Republican Party. The only change I can see is that 2008 intervened, and he almost lost his seat -- he got 51 percent. Some of these Republicans that sit in Obama districts or sit in democratically trending districts are certainly paying heed to the ground moving under them, and I think that they'd be foolish not to."
Republicans deny that their constituents' support for Obama has anything to do with their voting records. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, up for re-election in 2010, has announced his opposition to the president's stimulus package despite Obama's surprising win in his state, coinciding with the defeat of Burr's Republican colleague, former Sen. Elizabeth Dole. Obama's victory in North Carolina came on the back of Obama's economic proposals as the scope of the economic crisis became clear. But that doesn't necessarily ensure a favorable view from the North Carolina Republican.
"Senator Burr is going to vote the way he feels right on any piece of legislation," said Chris Walker, Burr's spokesman. "In this case, he feels that the economic-stimulus package that's out there is loaded with pet projects and doesn't focus on a broad-based stimulus."
But with public opinion polls showing that voters across the country support quick action on Obama's economic-stimulus legislation -- and that the approval ratings of both the president and congressional Democrats are much higher than those of the congressional GOP -- it's a delicate balance for Republicans who want to stay true to their conservative base while acknowledging that a majority of their constituents support the president. Some don't think Obama can capitalize on his support. One Republican Senate aide pointed to December's special election in Georgia, where incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss won a run-off with Democratic challenger Jim Martin by 15 points, despite running even in November.
To be sure, the pendulum does swing both ways; there are 47 Democratic House members whose districts were won by the Republican nominee, John McCain, and 13 senators. It's also true there are some members of Congress whose own base of support is so firm that they have little to worry about. But among those in either party who face a split constituency, it's the Republicans who have a reason to be anxious: McCain won't be setting the political agenda in Washington this year; Obama will. The new president will also have the political resources to bring pressure to bear on Republicans whose constituents supported his administration both during the legislative year and in the 2010 midterm elections.
That's why some Democrats see Obama's district or state-level victories as a potent rationale to lure GOP votes for the president's agenda.
"As you're looking for arguments, you want to marshal the facts," said Jim Manley, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, when asked about the Senate Republicans in states that went for Obama. "Sometimes that's one of the best arguments you have going for you."
Independent observers still expect at least some moderate congressional Republicans to support the economic stimulus package when the joint House-Senate conference committee produces a final version. These votes could cover for their opposition to the agenda earlier in the legislative process -- especially with Democratic political operatives salivating to challenge members whose voting records oppose the president their constituents supported.
"When folks are struggling back home, and worried about keeping their jobs and their health care or finding a job, the last thing that they want to hear is that Republicans have cheered and toasted obstructionism and that their political leader compares their tactics to the Taliban," said Jennifer Crider, the Democratic Congressional Committee's communications director.
One legislator in a tight spot is Erik Paulsen, a freshman Republican representative, who took his seat with 48.5 percent of the vote; Obama won 52 percent of the vote in the Minnesota district. Paulsen voted for S-CHIP but against the stimulus; when I called his office to ask about the logic behind his votes, his spokesperson declined to comment on the politics of the votes but sent along a statement from the congressman that echoed the Republican leadership's talking points on the stimulus package.
"This bill essentially turned into a supplemental spending bill and became a grab bag of special-interest spending on unrelated items that will not save or create jobs,” Paulsen said.
Paulsen threw his support behind the House GOP's tax-cuts focused plan and cites false numbers about the speed of the stimulus package to defend his vote; the CBO reports that well over three-quarters of the bill will be spent in its first two years.
"You look at some of these members who represent moderate districts, and rather than do what their constituents want, they just follow the Republican leadership off a cliff," Crider said.
The GOP is betting that Obama, now at the height of his popularity, will have little success in splitting their members. They'll wait instead for the inevitable end of the president's honeymoon, expecting that their opposition will be forgotten by 2010 if the new administration's agenda fails. But if Obama's agenda has tangible effects and his charm offensive continues to keep the public on his side, there could be a heavy price to pay for opposition.
So the question now is how Obama can work with these members of Congress to move his agenda forward. One way will be taking advantage of his Obama for America organization, home to the vaunted list of volunteers and supporters from his presidential campaign. Getting these supporters involved with his policy proposals by building grass-roots support and lobbying their representatives will be key to demonstrating the new president's political clout. The organization held 3,300 house parties last week to help rally supporters behind the stimulus legislation, but it is clear that Obama for America is still getting its feet on the ground.
After their party-line win in the House and what projects to be a narrow victory in the Senate -- a victory that came from a costly compromise with Senate moderates that will hurt the efficacy of the bill -- it's clear that the president isn't taking any more risks. In preparation for the bill returning to both chambers for a final vote after differences in the House and Senate version are smoothed out in a conference committee, Obama is planning a national tour to marshal further support for his plan, and a prime-time press conference. He will visit Indiana and Florida, two red-leaning states that he won during his fall campaign. Four moderate senators and a number of representatives contemplating their position will get a chance to see exactly how popular the new president is before the bill comes up for its last vote -- and Obama knows he has to muster enough support to see his first major agenda item through the legislative wringer.
Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, a longtime Republican member who has expressed some willingness to support the stimulus package, will fly with the president on Air Force One today. Obama won Upton's district in November; now he'll try to win his vote.
Congress Members Whose Districts Were Won by Obama
Howard "Buck" McKeon
Mary Bono Mack
C.W. Bill Young
Judd Gregg (and likely his replacement)
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