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McConnell, Senate Republicans helpless to shape stimulus bill

WASHINGTON — In the first major test of his power as the titular head of a dwindled Republican caucus, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell found himself outmaneuvered and outnumbered as he faced off against a Democratic majority on an Obama administration-backed $787 billion economic stimulus package.

"This legislation was driven by the White House, House Democrats and the Senate Democrats," said Larry Sabato, political science professor at the University of Virginia. ". . . McConnell is in a terrible position. The Democrats have a hand full of aces. He has a bunch of twos."

The final version of the economic stimulus package passed the Senate late Friday night on a largely partisan vote. The House of Representatives passed the final version of the bill on a vote of 246-183, with no Republican support.

President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill as soon as Monday.

The White House has said the package will help resuscitate the nation's ailing economy by offering tax relief and creating or saving 3.5 million jobs. States will net $27.5 billion to modernize roads and bridges, $53.6 billion to help offset education costs and $87 billion for Medicaid.

McConnell and fellow Republicans said that the aid comes at too steep a price, contains too much entitlement spending, doesn't do enough to help financially strapped homeowners and doesn't contain enough tax cuts — a provision Republicans see as vital to shoring up the private sector.

"This week, congressional Democrats are handing taxpayers a bill for $1.2 trillion," McConnell said on the Senate floor Friday. "Soon, they'll spend $400 billion to finish up spending from last year. We're being told to get ready for untold hundreds of billions for the financial industry.

"Since taking over Congress and the White House, Democrats have been making up for lost time with a government spending spree on the taxpayer credit card," McConnell said. "Even without this massive spending bill, the deficit continues to grow."

Ultimately, there was another set of numbers that McConnell just couldn't overcome.

Republicans hold 178 of the House's 435 seats and 41 of the 100 Senate seats — numbers too small to merit much say in crafting the compromise legislation. Instead, McConnell was forced to watch as moderate Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania joined Democrats on key votes on the economic stimulus package and took a lead roll in helping shape the legislation.

The three Northeastern senators have sided with Democrats on some social issues in the past, they hail from a region of the country where the GOP's legislative ranks have thinned significantly, and they represent many moderate to left-leaning voters in their home states. Early on, the Obama administration made overtures to the moderate Republicans, and Obama and Vice President Joe Biden called and transition officials met with the two Maine senators to discuss the stimulus proposal.

McConnell countered by urging his party members to hold the line during procedural fights to give the Republicans more room to negotiate. He took to the airwaves in both a radio address Saturday and on Sunday morning talk shows to underscore his caucus's disagreement with the size, cost and scope of the stimulus package.

Conservative Republicans, such as Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, followed suit with a series of press conferences highlighting concerns over the legislation's ballooning price tag.

"If we really want to stimulate the economy, we need to focus our attention on tax cuts for individuals, investment and businesses," Bunning said. "We need to enact legislation that will have a direct and immediate impact. We need a bill that will create more jobs through targeted tax relief; not a bill that spends money on programs that offer no immediate return to the American taxpayers."

As the Senate version of the measure moved through the chamber, however, Senate Democrats employed one of McConnell's well-used tools, cloture, to block a list of Republican amendments and proceed on debating the hotly contested bill.

As a team of House and Senate lawmakers worked to cull a compromise package this week, Obama went on a public relations blitz and put in appearances at town-hall meetings in such places as Fort Myers, Fla., to shore up public confidence in the measure.

Meanwhile, McConnell bemoaned cuts from the compromise legislation he said "would have reduced monthly mortgage payments and made it easier to buy a home. Workers would have been able to keep more of what they earn. It was also about half the cost of the Democrat plan."

Lawmakers hammering out a compromise also nixed Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson's popular measure to stimulate the nation's declining housing market by offering a $15,000 tax credit to individuals who purchase a home in the next year. Instead, Congress likely will eliminate a repayment requirement on a more modest $7,500 credit.

The move caused no small degree of consternation for McConnell and other Republican lawmakers who, throughout the daylong debate Friday, pointed to the change to the Georgia lawmaker's provision as a yet another example of the Democrats' unwillingness to work in a bipartisan fashion. Other Republican complaints were overshadowed by public tension over the compromise legislation between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif and Senate Majority Harry Reid, D-Nev.

"Senate Republicans were sort of a footnote by then," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report in Washington.

McConnell's frustration with the resulting compromise legislation is palpable.

"In my view, and in the view of my Republican colleagues, this is not the smart approach," McConnell said. "The taxpayers of today and tomorrow will be left to clean up the mess."

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