WASHINGTON — The Republican Party is taking a big risk by looking like the party of "no" at a time when Americans like their new president and badly want the economy fixed.
"The image of the party is still forming. Voters are deciding whether the Republican Party is an obstacle to progress or standing up for its ideals," said Neil Newhouse, partner at Public Opinion Strategies, a Virginia-based Republican consulting firm.
The party line is that the GOP is banking on fealty to small-government principles to guide its response to a barrage of economic recovery measures — including massive economic stimulus spending for 2009 and 2010, more financial rescue steps, and heath care legislation — in the next few months.
"Last week was a good start for the party," said David Carney, President George H.W. Bush's political director, in a reference to the vote on the $787.2 billion economic recovery package, which President Barack Obama plans to sign Tuesday in Denver. Every Republican in Congress except three GOP senators opposed the plan.
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The risks to the emerging Republican image as naysayers — or, perhaps, principled conservatives — are legion. Obama's popularity remains high. Democrats, including the president, are using their loud megaphone to paint the GOP as insensitive and cranky. And if the economy begins to rebound even slightly, Democrats will get the credit.
The GOP plan is to continue demonstrating its resolve with a combination of tough opposition to what it considers as excessive government spending and government involvement in the economy and offer its own solutions.
"Republicans have an opportunity, because of the contents of the stimulus bill, to really focus on wasteful spending," said Jim Greer, the Florida Republican party chairman. "A lot of people are not as enthused about the stimulus bill as they were."
The House of Representatives next week is expected to debate an estimated $410 billion plan to keep much of the government running through the last seven months of this fiscal year. Republicans already are complaining that much of the measure not only is too expensive, but also is being written in secret and could contain too many special local projects, or earmarks.
Within the next few weeks, lawmakers also are likely to consider Obama's latest plans to help financial markets and another round of 2009 defense spending that'll include war funding. By summer, Congress could be deliberating what to do about health care, renewable energy and climate change — all likely to be very expensive.
Republican leaders warn that domestic spending is out of control, and vow to look for cuts program by program.
"We need to sort of put it all in context, lay the whole figure out there and just make sure everyone understands the kind of stunning, staggering amounts that we're talking about here," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
He and other Republican officeholders are confident they're on the right path.
"All these assertions that we're the party of no are unfounded. We have put together a plan," said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia. During the stimulus debate, the GOP offered a $445 billion package that featured lower income tax rates but little for education. Last year, Cantor led an effort to use insurance rather than direct government aid to help the financial industry.
Critics countered that Republicans knew all along that such plans would go nowhere in a capital dominated by Democrats, and didn't try to work much with the majority party to craft legislation.
Republicans said that they tried hard to get along. Congressional Republicans met with Obama regularly to talk about the stimulus, and won inclusion of two key changes: A $70 billion break for many affected by the alternative minimum tax and an $8,000 credit for new homebuyers.
With Democrats controlling the agenda, however, the GOP faces an image as insensitive and obstructionist.
"Republicans could make some headway with charging Democrats with out of control spending. But if states and localities are about to lay off teachers, people understand you have to stop the bleeding," said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Republicans also confront a popular president striving to ease the economic pain. Obama's job approval rating in the Feb. 9-10 Gallup poll was 66 percent, and it went up slightly last week during the stimulus debate. A CBS News Feb. 2-4 poll found that only 32 percent saw congressional Republicans favorably.
"People really want to give Obama a chance. They feel there are good people here, and they're not playing games," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at Washington's American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research organization.
Republicans understand that they won't regain favor quickly. Carney recalled the senior president Bush's 91 percent approval rating in 1991 — yet he lost his bid for re-election the next year.
"Being really popular and being powerful are two different things," he said, adding that Obama hasn't yet proven that he knows how to translate popularity into power.
The best the GOP can do, he and others said, is to keep reiterating its qualms about last year's financial and auto industry bailouts, which still aren't popular with the public. That curb-spending stance may ultimately prove popular.
"The party is taking the first steps toward coming back in 2010 and 2012," said Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group.
Others see the strategy as a gamble, but they agree that about all Republicans can do is stick together and wait. "There's got to be a limit to how much the government can spend efficiently and effectively," Newhouse said.
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