Democrats Set Sights on Republican Senators Who Oppose Stimulus Plan
WASHINGTON — Senator Judd Gregg awoke to the bad news on Thursday morning that a coalition of Democratic groups had planned to run television advertisements in his state to pressure him to support President Obama’s economic recovery plan.
Mr. Gregg, a third-term Republican from New Hampshire, is one of five Republican senators who are targets; all face re-election in 2010.
“Those groups don’t impress me,” he said in an interview. “I’m trying to participate constructively, help the new president where I can be helpful and be part of the loyal opposition where I disagree with him.”
On the morning after the House passed an $819 billion package of stimulus spending and tax cuts without a single Republican vote in favor, the action moved to the Senate, where Republicans began mobilizing for a fight. Mindful of the danger of simply opposing a popular new president at a time of national distress, they were intent on coming to the floor with proposals of their own to substantively change the bill, including additional tax cuts and reduced spending.
“We do need a very robust and aggressive stimulus package,” Mr. Gregg said, “but we need one that works and is focused on the problem, which is housing, and that essentially doesn’t end up aggravating the long-term debt of the country” with spending that extends beyond the two-year life of the recovery plan.
The Republican said he had earlier called Mr. Obama’s senior economic adviser, Lawrence H. Summers, and “gave him my thoughts on how this should be reoriented toward real estate.”
With coordinated news conferences, speeches and television appearances, Republican senators said they would push hard to amend the House package that Mr. Obama supports, including with a proposal to allow all creditworthy homeowners to refinance their mortgages at interest rates of 4.5 percent or lower.
Given Democrats’ majority margins in the House and Senate, Mr. Obama is expected to get the stimulus measure he wants. But he also wants some Republican support in keeping with his separate campaign promise to change Washington’s polarized ways. In his latest overture, Mr. Obama invited senators from both parties to the White House to watch the Super Bowl on Sunday, the eve of the Senate debate.
Republicans, for their part, are wary of bucking a president whose election marked a repudiation of his Republican predecessor’s policies. That is especially true of those, like Mr. Gregg, who could face tough races next year. In both parties, some are already raising the question: Might 2010 be like 1934, or 1994?
In 1934, the Democratic Party added to its majorities in the House and Senate after Republicans opposed the New Deal economic program of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But in 1994, the Democratic Party lost control of Congress after Republicans unanimously opposed President Bill Clinton’s deficit-reduction plan and then campaigned against Democrats for passing it.
Republicans profess to be unconcerned. House Republicans on Thursday headed off to a retreat at The Homestead, a Virginia resort, still celebrating their unanimous stand — despite Mr. Obama’s visit to the Capitol to seek their support — against a package that in their view has too much big-government spending and too few tax cuts. Their unsuccessful substitute was entirely of tax cuts.
In a congratulatory memorandum to his colleagues early Thursday, the House minority leader, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio wrote: “House Republicans said we would stand up for American taxpayers at this time of economic hardship for our nation. And last night, standing together, that’s exactly what we did.”
Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman who remains a party strategist, said he believed Republican incumbents faced “minimal risk” because a Democratic package would ultimately become law. “If Republicans blocked it, if they had the capacity to actually kill it,” Mr. Weber said, “then that would be a different matter.”
Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst, agreed. “I think what the House Republicans did was totally right,” Mr. Rothenberg said. “There is no political benefit for them in being politically co-opted by the new president,” given that most come from districts drawn to be packed with conservative Republican voters.
But, as Mr. Rothenberg added, things are different for Republican senators, who represent entire states that generally are more demographically, socially and politically diverse. And while Mr. Obama did not get a majority last November in many House Republican districts, he did win in many Republican senators’ states, including Mr. Gregg’s.
Voters in New Hampshire also ousted Senator John E. Sununu, Mr. Gregg’s former Republican colleague, last November, signaling that Mr. Gregg would be next in Democrats’ sights. The once overwhelmingly Republican state has increasingly trended Democratic. As recently as 2004 its governor, two senators and two House members were Republicans. Now Mr. Gregg is the only Republican left.
Earlier this week, Mr. Gregg broke with most Senate Republicans to support Mr. Obama’s nominee for Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner. And Mr. Obama’s respect for him is such that Mr. Gregg was approached about becoming commerce secretary, the senator’s office confirmed on Thursday.
But Mr. Gregg opposed the Democratic stimulus plan in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. The only Republican who voted for it there was Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, a moderate who is also a target of the coming pro-Obama television advertisements.
Mr. Gregg calls himself “a minor player” in the effort of the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, to propose fixes to the Democrats’ package.
Among the changes, Republicans would double to $15,000 the Democrats’ proposed homebuyer tax credit, add more tax cuts for businesses, provide aid to the states as loans instead of grants and strip out various spending initiatives. The Republicans complained Tuesday that Congressional Democrats had reduced the share of tax cuts in their package to one-third, down from the 40 percent that Mr. Obama initially indicated he supported.
Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, were chafing at the White House talk of accommodating Republicans in the wake of the House Republicans’ unanimous opposition. Although Mr. Obama at one point said he hoped for as many as 80 Senate votes, on Thursday the Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, said Democrats would be satisfied to pass the bill regardless of how many Republicans supported it.
“Passing a bill — however we pass it — is going to put this country on a road to new jobs, and bring some vitality to the economy which is lagging,” Mr. Reid said.
Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, said both Senate and House Republicans should be worried about appearing as obstructionists. Mr. Plouffe said of Republican opposition, “It’s almost as if the election didn’t happen and that the message wasn’t received: that people in Washington need to cooperate a lot more than they have in the past.”
But Mr. Gregg insists cooperation is a two-way street. “I’d like to see the stimulus done right and I’d like to be able to vote for it,” he said. But politics aside, he added, “If it’s not done right, I won’t.”Adam Nagourney contributed reporting.