A tree in need of trimming

Who expected House Republicans to pay asking price?

The historic economic rescue package that passed the House on Wednesday night without a single Republican supporting it was a free vote for the House GOP — a gimme — practically a late Christmas present from a brand-new president. The House Democrats' bill, loaded up with spending for existing government programs but light on job-creating investment like infrastructure spending or enough tax cuts, was too easily characterized as a reckless squandering of taxpayer dollars Republicans could not abide.

Let's begin with the fact that many of the party's base voters would have loved congressional Republicans to have shown this kind of fiscal restraint during the eight years they instead helped the Bush administration swell the ranks of government beyond their conservative imaginations. We will continue with the fact that House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) could have waited until after President Obama gave Republicans the visit they requested, before he asked his rank and file to join him in blocking the bill.

Arguably, lining up opposition before hearing Obama out was partisan politics. But the rest of it was not. The House GOP attacked the bill itself while taking great pains to talk about how nice the president was. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), however, blamed them for avoiding a substantive debate.

“The Republicans are talking about process. I think when you lose the argument on substance, on policy, what do you do? You talk about process and you talk about personality,” she said.

But Pelosi was not correct — if House Republicans weren't arguing substance, Democrats wouldn't have had to remove the hundreds of millions for contraceptives, as well as the hundreds of millions for sprucing up the Mall in Washington. Clearly, Republicans had scored a victory on policy, not politics, and certainly not personality.

Critics complain that what was once designed to be “timely, targeted and temporary” stimulus has given way to funding for education for our increasingly unemployed country to learn more about smoking cessation and sexually transmitted diseases — and the bill doesn't contain adequate sunsets that explicitly end the expenditures at a date certain. As our newspaper reported, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said the president's bill was “fine,” but that “Congress messed it up.”

Democrats must know how anxious and outraged Americans feel about the Troubled Asset Relief Program the U.S. Congress shoved down their throats last fall, because Republicans sure do. The TARP debacle has paved the way for GOP questions about runaway Democratic spending on social programs and the inability of government to use deficit spending to affect the economic downturn.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), who wrote the bill, said he had made an honest effort “to find a point of equilibrium where a majority of people in the place can feel comfortable with what we have done, and then you hope it works.” But the majority was not in the Congress, just in the Democratic Caucus.

Will Obama let go of the reins or take control of this crucial test with the public? If you read between the lines, Obama is hoping to fix the bill in the Senate. So the sod for the Mall and funding for contraceptives aren't likely to be the last ornaments to be taken off the tree. There will be horse-trading in the Senate over tax cuts, likely targeted at small businesses, and possibly an Alternative Minimum Tax patch, so the vote in that chamber is likely to be bipartisan.

Then comes the conference, during which Obama will have to pressure House Democrats to drop the liberal social spending that can't pass the test of emergency expenditures. If he can, there are House Republicans who — even without more tax cuts — will come around to support an increase in traditional infrastructure spending that would directly create more jobs. Obama doesn't have to add significantly more tax relief to get some Republicans on board, but clearly, the funny money has got to go.

If Obama wants to change the way business is done in Washington, he can do it next week, by facing down his own party.