GOP: The party of maybe?

Published October 13, 2011

By Suzy Khimm, Washington Post


Less than 24 hours after voting down President Obama’s jobs bill, which failed Tuesday night in the Senate, a few Republicans have their expressed their willingness to consider someof the individual policy ideas laid out in the president’s legislation.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said that he’d be open to examining a compromise proposal that Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is developing to pair a national infrastructure bank — a long-standing idea that Obama included in his bill — with a tax repatriation holiday that Republicans support, which would allow corporations to bring in overseas profits at a sharply lower tax rate.

“It’s worth pursuing — it all would be what’s in the details, but it’s conceivable,” he said Wednesday of Schumer’s compromise, emphasizing that he hasn’t seen a concrete proposal yet. “I’d be glad to take a look at that.”

Sessions did express some skepticism about the vehicle of an infrastructure bank itself but stressed the importance of the effort overall. “I don’t think it would be as a great a thing as some believe — it can’t be effective immediately — but properly constructed, it may be an effective way to help create greater infrastructure work in America,” Sessions told me. “Jobs are created as it’s being constructed and, second, you have a permanent improvement to society that may be there for a hundred years.”

Earlier this year, in fact, two Senate Republicans — Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) — had co-sponsored Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry’s infrastructure bank bill, which bears close resemblance to the proposal in Obama’s failed jobs bill. When asked what he thought of Schumer’s new proposal, Graham said on Wednesday that he “might consider it,” mentioning his earlier support for the Kerry bill.

Meanwhile, two of the nine centrists in the Democratic caucus who oppose Obama’s jobs bill as a whole are already over the moon about Schumer’s proposal. “It’s a great idea, and I think it’s something that we should explore, absolutely,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.), when asked about the New York senator’s idea. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) was equally enthused and highly optimistic about its prospects of passing. “I wouldn’t say it’s a match made in heaven,” he told me, referring to Schumer’s decision to pair the infrastructure bank with repatriation. “But it’s a match made in Senate heaven.”

Schumer’s compromise will still be a tough sell, politically: Conservative economists like Doug Holtz-Eakin unilaterally oppose the creation of the infrastructure bank, while small business advocates have already launched a crusade against the repatriation push as a giveaway to big business. “They’re sitting on big profits and cash hordes [sic]. Don’t fall for the smoke and mirrors. We shouldn’t be rewarding — again — the companies who keep offshoring profits and jobs,” Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement Wednesday.

What’s more, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) has already vowed to attach the smaller piece of Obama’s jobs proposal to increments of the millionaire’s surtax to pay for the bills — a proposal that’s likely to be a non-starter for Republicans — rather than a GOP-friendly repatriation holiday. Given such a political climate, even modest policies that passed Congress with bipartisan support a year ago, such as the Social Security payroll tax, aren’t certain to pass again.

Sessions, for one, says he is “very worried” that extending payroll tax cut could end up weakening Social Security and argues that it won’t be an effective stimulus. “We didn’t get that kind of bang the first time we did that,” he says. Even if employees who receive the tax break do end up spending more money as a result, Sessions is skeptical of its economic impact. “Much of what we buy is imported — the big discount guys make a few cents profit, but most of the money goes to whoever manufactures the product in the world.”

But if that’s the case, I asked Sessions, why would the tax cuts that Republicans have pushed for be any more effective? His answer was that not all tax cuts are alike: “The previous tax cuts have been in place for a decade, and most of us always believe they should be permanent… This is an explicitly a temporary thing.”

Not all Republicans stand as firmly opposed. Graham said the payroll tax cut would “be something I’d consider,” adding that he thinks “it’d have some bipartisan support.” But the essential problem remains: Even if the smaller pieces of Obama’s jobs bill receive patchwork support from Republicans, the caucus as a whole would still be unwilling to unite behind any one proposal.

Part of Democrats’ rationale of pushing for smaller components of the bill is that they force Republicans to go on the record as opposing specific policies, and the GOP leadership won’t be eager to go along. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) asserted weeks ago that the GOP would be open to considering smaller components of Obama’s proposal. But on Wednesday, his office blasted the president for spending weeks insisting that his legislation come to an all-or-nothing vote. “Sadly, all of this political grandstanding we’ve been witnessing over the last month could have been avoided,” said a statement on the majority leader’s Web site.

Similarly, when asked about Schumer’s proposal and the payroll tax cut, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) declined to weigh in, calling the Democrats’ approach to the jobs legislation a political exercise. “I’m not going to speak to that. So much of this is just for politics. And I’m not into politics right now,” Kyl told me. “I’m not going to discuss specific elements.”

*Update: Story has been updated to clarify that Sessions has endorsed some of the ideas included in Obama’s jobs bill, not any individual components of the bill itself.

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