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GOP lawmakers optimistic about 'no' votes

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By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post staff writer
Monday, July 26, 2010

In February, when unpredictable Sen. Jim Bunning single-handedly stalled extensions of unemployment benefits for several days, his Republican colleagues quickly abandoned him, worried that the GOP would be cast as the party against helping people who are out of work.

Last month, as jobless benefits were again to set to expire, Bunning (Ky.) still objected to funding them in a way that would increase the deficit. But this time, nearly every Republican in the Senate joined him, leading to a month-long impasse in which more than 2 million people briefly lost their benefits. When the extension finally passed last week, only two Republicans backed the $34 billion unemployment measure, compared with 21 who had voted with Democrats in March.

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That stand-off illustrated the dynamics that have defined Capitol Hill over the last few months.

After the highly partisan debates on the economic stimulus and health care that dominated the first 15 months of the Obama administration, Democratic leaders, conscious that many members of their party have become wary of being tagged by Republicans as big spenders, intentionally decided to push less controversial measures.

But the barrage of "no" votes from the GOP has not abated. Emboldened by sagging approval ratings of the Democratic-controlled Congress, Republicans almost unanimously opposed a bill to overhaul the financial regulatory system that President Obama signed into law; they are against a measure to increase the disclosure of campaign spending by corporations; and they've largely eliminated the chance of passing a series of measures Democrats say could help the economy.

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Their opposition turned unemployment benefits, usually an issue with little political controversy, into an intense clash between the parties.

Republicans say polls suggest that they can oppose all of these initiatives by casting them into a broader critique of Democrats increasing the size of government and the budget deficit, even if their bills are individually popular with the public.

"We're very comfortable where we're at; we have very few members who feel endangered," said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), a veteran Republican and a deputy whip in the House. "We feel like we are reflecting a broader mood of dissatisfaction. Right now, the American people want us saying no."

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Republicans say they oppose the substance of nearly every proposal by Democrats or view the GOP alternatives as better. And party strategists argue that voters largely care about one issue this year: the unemployment rate.


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