How It Came Down to This: 244 Democrats, 0 Republicans

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Reps. Michael N. Castle (Del.) and Fred Upton (Mich.) sat side by side in the House chamber during the final vote on the economic stimulus package, each exhausted by the barrage of rhetoric from Democrats and fellow Republicans.

The longtime friends, both moderates in an increasingly polarized House, were two of about 10 Republicans who had signaled they would even consider backing the bill at the center of President Obama's agenda.

The measure's passage in the House on that day in February was ensured, but Obama had campaigned on reducing division in Washington and wanted to secure at least some GOP support. House Republican leaders sought to reject the bill with a unified no.

That left Castle and Upton in the middle, enduring numerous meetings and calls from Obama aides and House GOP leaders. Castle had been invited to two Super Bowl parties: Vice President Biden's at the Naval Observatory and Obama's at the White House. Citing family commitments, he declined both.

But Upton, who also had been invited to the White House, brought his 17-year-old son, Stephen, to watch the game with Obama and other Washington officials.

"It was like going to the neighbor whose house you always wanted to be invited to who has the best TV on the block," Upton said of the bash.

He also rode on Air Force One a few days later when he joined the president on a trip to Elkhart, Ind., a town just south of Upton's district. The president had taken to the road to appeal to Congress to quickly pass his proposal.

House Republican leaders focused on the battles of Upton's home district in Michigan, the heart of the ailing automobile industry. The congressman and Rep. Candice S. Miller, another moderate Republican from Michigan, had pushed an $11.5 billion provision that would allow tax breaks for new-car purchases, a proposal they hoped would spur sales.

But the final bill included only $1.6 billion for the program, so on the day of the vote GOP leaders arranged for Miller to introduce a measure that would increase the funding. That was going to be hard, given that House Democrats had negotiated the exact amount of the overall stimulus bill with the Senate. Democrats rejected the effort.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), the man leading the GOP opposition to the package, was also aware that securing Castle and Upton's votes might hinge on making sure that no other Republicans backed the legislation. So in the hours before the vote, Cantor and other GOP leaders were in constant contact with possible GOP supporters of the bill, such as Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao (La.), a newcomer from New Orleans who defeated incumbent William J. Jefferson (D) in a special election in an Obama stronghold. They explained their concerns about the stimulus package and stressed the importance of opposing it.

Once the voting officially started, most members of Congress quickly cast their votes and then stood in the front of the chamber with their colleagues.

But Castle and Upton just sat beside each other in the center aisle, chatting and taking in the moment.

When a House GOP leader approached to remind them again how important it was to oppose the bill, Upton says he told him to "leave us alone."

Instead, as the clock ran down on the 15 minutes that members are allotted to vote on a measure, the pair realized that several other members -- Democrats and Republicans -- were staring at them.

"The spotlight was on us," Upton joked. "We were enjoying our 15 minutes of fame."

Finally they cast their votes. Both men said they had largely settled on "no" days before, believing that the country needed a fiscal stimulus measure but that the legislation before them included too much spending on efforts that would not directly improve the economy.

"A good stimulus package is something we should have done, my feeling was that program was not well put together," Castle said.

Neither Castle nor Upton was sure that all 177 Republicans would oppose the bill. They realized quickly, however, the impact that a unified opposition would have.

Castle is not a cynic about bipartisanship, saying that he thinks the White House is sincere about bipartisanship and hopes it continues to reach out, but that he has no illusions about Democrats or Republicans in Washington: "I'm not giving the Republicans a lot of credit for being particularly bipartisan over the years, either."

Of the Democrats, he added: "Sometimes it's a lot easier to call Nancy Pelosi and Senator [Harry M.] Reid and say, 'Let's get this done,' and not worry about scurrying up Republicans. I would imagine the vote on the stimulus didn't help, because they worked that and they didn't get anything, so why bother?"

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