Republicans See Long-Term Victory in Defeat on Stimulus Plan

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, shown talking to former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a White House gathering late in the Bush administration, has taken on a leadership role in the out-of-power Republican Party.
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, shown talking to former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a White House gathering late in the Bush administration, has taken on a leadership role in the out-of-power Republican Party. (By J. Scott Applewhite -- Associated Press)
By Alec MacGillis and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 9, 2009

Three months after their Election Day drubbing, Republican leaders see glimmers of rebirth in the party's liberation from an unpopular president, its selection of its first African American chairman and, most of all, its stand against a stimulus package that they are increasingly confident will provide little economic jolt but will pay off politically for those who oppose it.

After giving the package zero votes in the House, and with their counterparts in the Senate likely to provide in a crucial procedural vote today only the handful of votes needed to avoid a filibuster, Republicans are relishing the opportunity to make a big statement. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) suggested last week that the party is learning from the disruptive tactics of the Taliban, and the GOP these days does have the bravado of an insurgent band that has pulled together after a big defeat to carry off a quick, if not particularly damaging, raid on the powers that be.

"We're so far ahead of where we thought we'd be at this time," said Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), one of several younger congressmen seeking to lead the party's renewal. "It's not a sign that we're back to where we need to be, but it's a sign that we're beginning to find our voice. We're standing on our core principles, and the core principle that suffered the most in recent years was fiscal conservatism and economic liberty. That was the tallest pole in our tent, and we took an ax to it, but now we're building it back."

The second-ranking House Republican, Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), put it more bluntly. "What transpired . . . and will give us a shot in the arm going forward is that we are standing up on principle and just saying no," he said.

The fact that the stimulus legislation keeps moving forward nonetheless has done nothing to dim Republicans' satisfaction. Rather, they sense a tactical victory, particularly in the framing of their opposition to the plan as a clash with congressional Democrats instead of with President Obama, who remains far more popular with voters than does Congress.

Republicans are holding congressional Democrats responsible for the wasteful spending they say is in the stimulus package, even though most of the big-ticket items -- for renewable energy, health care and schools -- are ones that Obama wanted in the package to advance his long-term goals.

For a while, the president did not exactly resist this tack, leaving the impression that the bill is mainly a congressional creation, but he started to defend it more vigorously last week. It is a triangulation of sorts, with Republicans hoping to drive a wedge between congressional Democrats and Obama.

"The president has done a good job reaching out to Republicans, and he has said he wants to approach this crisis . . . on a bipartisan basis. That's good, and we're willing to work with him on that. But this bill is not the president's bipartisan plan," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said yesterday on "Fox News Sunday."

Tom Davis, who retired from his Northern Virginia congressional seat last month, has long warned about the party's decline among moderate suburban voters. But with George W. Bush now off the national stage, Davis is upbeat about the party's prospects in its initial tests: the House seat in Upstate New York that had been held by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D), and Virginia's gubernatorial race.

"There was such antipathy to Bush, and you take him out of it and a lot of the Democrats' energy evaporates. It doesn't change the poll numbers, but it changes the energy," he said. "That's why these elections are going to be different."

The flash of triumphalism -- fueled further by schadenfreude over the tax troubles of some of Obama's Cabinet nominees -- is not without risk. Voters hungering for a response to hard times may see the GOP's battle against the stimulus package as unsympathetic to their plight. And Obama may decide it is not worth reaching out to Republicans on future legislation.

The party is also likely to be less unified on the final vote on the stimulus package. Rep. Michael N. Castle (Del.), one of a dwindling number of moderate Republicans in the House, said he hopes the bill will improve enough in its final version so he can vote yes.

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