GOP can't agree on economic fix

January 30, 2009|By Janet Hook and Mark Z. Barabak | Janet Hook and Mark Z. Barabak,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON - Don Manzullo, a House Republican from Illinois, has proposed a $5,000 voucher for anyone buying a new car. Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, the Senate GOP leader, favors a temporary suspension of the payroll tax. Jim DeMint, a Republican senator from South Carolina, wants to cut the federal income tax permanently.

As Republicans fight President Barack Obama's economic plan, they have plenty of ideas. What they don't have is a partywide consensus: They can't agree among themselves on the best alternative or whether government action is even needed to pull the economy from its nose dive.

The House passed an $819 billion version of the stimulus bill Wednesday without a single Republican voting in favor. Still, Obama and fellow Democrats hope for at least some GOP support in the Senate, where a more collaborative - and expensive - bill is taking shape. Many Republican governors, meanwhile, have begun calculating how to spend their share of any federal bailout.

"There is not a coherent Republican message at this moment," said lobbyist Vin Weber, a former GOP House member from Minnesota.

The party's scattershot stance points up two problems facing Republicans: Absent a central figure like the new president, who speaks for the GOP? And with its image in tatters, how does the party oppose Obama without seeming heedlessly partisan or ignoring voters' desire for quick action to ease the economic hurt?

For all their uncertainty, many Republicans agree on one thing. "They understand that Obama is enormously popular and resisting him is very dangerous," Weber said.

Where lawmakers stand depends greatly on where they sit.

House Republicans, who face voters every two years, typically represent ideologically cohesive and mostly conservative districts. Senators, whose terms run for six years, are chosen by a much larger electorate and have to weigh a broader set of concerns. That would explain why many Senate Republicans, while expressing concerns about the size of the stimulus package and its ratio of tax cuts to spending, have been more receptive to compromising with Obama.

It has been more than a decade since the GOP has been in such a weakened state and even longer since the party has faced a Democrat in Obama's strong political position.

"When your message is you're better than the alternative, you have to have ideas," said Brian Darling, director of Senate relations for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

Broadly speaking, Republicans have been making their long-standing case for smaller, less-intrusive government. They say that putting money directly into people's wallets, through tax cuts, is a better way to spur the economy than channeling money through public works and other government spending programs.

But some worry that the GOP has lost its credibility on economic issues as a result of the budget-busting policies of President George W. Bush and the financial crisis that many voters blame on his administration.

"I don't think there's very much Republicans can do on economic matters right now, other than get out of the way ... then let the chips fall where they may," said Don Sipple, a longtime GOP communications strategist. "If there's an opening down the road, or the stimulus package is a bust, that might open up some opportunities. But I think they've got to walk on eggshells for a while."

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