By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post staff writer
Monday, July 26, 2010; A02
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.
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.
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."
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.
Congressional Democrats and the White House "are trying to deal with these other issues when there is only one issue in the room: jobs and the economy," said David Winston, a Republican pollster.
The opposition has left Democrats fuming. They say Republicans complain that Congress should focus more on the economy but oppose every measure Democrats take up to create jobs. In the Democratic view, the GOP is cynically blocking measures to reduce unemployment so they ensure an angry electorate this fall who will want to vote out incumbents, most of whom are Democrats.
"They want to blame us for failing to get things done that they themselves have blocked us from getting done," said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The Republican opposition itself is not new. Urged by party leaders, every Republican House member opposed last year's stimulus, and every GOP member of Congress voted against the health-care legislation.
But after the health-care debate, Democrats intentionally played down major pushes on more polarizing issues, such as climate change, and looked for bills that would be easier to get through Congress.
Some of that has been successful. Senate Republicans backed down from a full-scale blockage of the financial overhaul and have backed some of the smaller job-creation measures. But even on the financial regulation bill, Republicans repeatedly delayed its passage and forced changes that some Democrats felt weakened the legislation. In the end, only six Republicans in Congress backed it.
In the Senate, the Republicans, joining with a few conservative Democrats, have blocked measures that would offer summer jobs to teenagers, give aid to states to prevent layoffs of teachers and other state employees, and expand funding of Pell grants -- arguing that all would raise the budget deficit.
The opposition to the unemployment benefits was the most striking; polls show widespread support for the extension. In a recent Gallup survey, 22 percent of people suggested "jobs/unemployment" was the most important issue facing the country, while 6 percent said the national debt and deficit.
But GOP leaders, who had been blindsided by Bunning's move in February, said they were prepared for the issue and believe the public mood has shifted in their direction.
"We think the American people agree with our argument," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the architect of the GOP's opposition in Congress. "The spending issue is resonating."
There has been little public criticism within GOP ranks of the continued opposition. At the same time, some Republicans would like the "no" votes combined with more discussion of the party's positive vision. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) said last week that Republicans were reluctant to adopt his comprehensive plan to bring down the federal deficit and reform Social Security and Medicare because "they are talking to their pollsters."
The GOP leaders emphasize that the party will put out its own governing agenda well before the election.
Democrats think that the GOP's governing plan and its ardent opposition will help turn the election into a choice between the two parties' visions, and that voters will favor Democrats. Republicans say they see little evidence that will happen.
"Legislative accomplishments and political popularity are very different things," said Cole. "They are racking up victories, but they're not building up political capital. We know we are going to win seats, they know they are going to lose seats."