WASHINGTON — Has the Republican Party, whose presidential candidate and dozens of congressional hopefuls were rejected by voters in November, already been reinvigorated by its opposition to President Barack Obama?
Party officials think so. They proudly point to the fact that all the GOP members of the House of Representatives stuck together last week and voted against the Democrats' $819 billion economic stimulus plan, and to how the Senate, which is due to begin debate on the plan Monday, is full of similarly skeptical Republicans.
"We'll look back to that (House) vote as one of the most significant votes Republicans cast. It gave them a very coherent voice," said Michael Franc, a political analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
The vote was a public demonstration of independence from Obama, who took the unusual step of meeting privately with congressional Republicans the day before the House vote. It also demonstrated what Republicans stand for, notably bigger tax cuts and less government spending.
The strategy carries enormous risks, however, because it could suggest that Republicans are eager to put the brakes on emergency aid to millions of Americans who are trying to survive what's fast becoming the nation's worst economic downturn since World War II.
It also creates a risk that the GOP, which no longer has a single House member from any of the six New England states and no senators from a Pacific coast state, is in danger of becoming a regional, ideologically focused party.
"We're all concerned about the fact that the very wealthy and the very poor, the most and least educated, and a majority of minority voters seem to have more or less stopped paying attention to us," warned Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
McConnell is in a unique position to reshape the party's image, starting this week. While it's widely expected that Democrats, who control 58 of the 100 Senate seats, largely will get their way, McConnell will have the key role in deciding how far to push Republican positions and when to urge compromise.
He presides over three loosely defined Senate factions: One that's unwilling to compromise with Democrats; a second that sees opportunities to add some provisions and promote bipartisanship and the few remaining moderates, who already like much of the Democratic bill.
The moderates are led by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who voted for the package in the Senate Finance Committee.
Snowe cited a "pervading sense of economic uncertainty," and she was particularly pleased that she won a provision to make it easier for health care providers to use information technology. She also promoted the $87 billion in health care aid that states would get from the bill.
More crucial to bipartisanship is a group that will try to add pet provisions to the stimulus bill. Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Ensign of Nevada is leading a group that wants more help for housing.
Among Ensign's ideas: Having the government guarantee new and refinanced mortgages at a 4 percent rate for the first year or two of a 30-year loan. He had no cost estimates, but Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said that he's open to the idea.
Also on Ensign's list is making aid to the states loans instead of grants. "States could make changes to make them fiscally responsible," he said. "Otherwise, the debt is passed on to the federal government, and where would it get the money?"
This middle-of-the-road group, however, faces a strong contingent of senators who consider the stimulus plan a deficit-busting grab bag, and see a chance to push hard for bigger tax cuts, long a Republican mainstay.
The current bill, said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., "is a pent-up wish list of spending programs that many around here have wanted to implement for a really long time."
Democrats, the conservatives said, really don't want any Republican input. "There's very little likelihood that we'll have a substantial change," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., "so we need to resist this package with every strength that we have."
This group sees the party slowly, even quietly, taking a position of principled opposition. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, heads the Senate GOP campaign committee, and he's raised serious questions about whether Hillary Clinton should be secretary of state and Eric Holder should be attorney general. Holder still hasn't been confirmed; a vote is expected on Monday afternoon.
The staunch conservatives think if they succeed in torpedoing the economic package, perhaps with a filibuster, Republicans won't be blamed if the recession deepens later this year.
"Republicans then are going to be in the position to say we didn't have the input into this that we needed," said Jon Kyl of Arizona, the second-ranking Senate Republican, "and that's why it hasn't worked."
Democrats view this as a dangerous strategy.
"Republicans voting no is a powerful symbol of being in a different place and not realizing what's going on in the real world," said Democratic strategist Stan Greenberg. "The risks are great."
Independent analysts think the GOP is playing the only hand it's got.
"It is cynical, and in the short run it will be unpopular," said Gary Jacobson, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, of the GOP's reluctance to back the stimulus. "But I think they're thinking about the elections in 2010."
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