Don't Call It a Compromise

Don't Call It a Compromise

By Kimberley Strassel - February 13, 2009

"I have worked with my colleagues -- Republicans and Democrats -- to cut wasteful spending in this bill and focus taxpayer dollars where they will do the most good." -- Sen. Kent Conrad, one extremely relieved man.

"[The stimulus is] much more focused on jobs after Senator Susan Collins of Maine, I and a bipartisan group of senators cut $110 billion of non-stimulative spending . . ." -- Sen. Bill Nelson, if possible, even more extremely relieved.

The cause of their relief? Sens. Collins, Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter, of course. According to the Beltway media, the three GOP amigos -- whose votes this week allowed Senate Democrats to pass an $838 billion "stimulus" -- are now the most "powerful" people in Washington. Bills succeed or spontaneously combust at their very say-so. Want sunshine tomorrow? Ask the senators from Maine. They'll make it happen.

Then again, only in Washington could the word "powerful" be applied to three members who voted for a bill that they always intended to vote for, no matter how big, bad or ugly. Their real accomplishment this week wasn't "fixing" the stimulus; they didn't. Their real role was providing cover for moderate Democrats (smile, Messrs. Conrad and Nelson) who might have been reluctant to vote for an unpopular spending blowout, were it not for GOP back-up.

A week ago the Capitol's phone lines were jammed with Americans -- half of them from North Dakota -- livid about "stimulus" waste. A number of Senate Democrats, several up for re-election in red-state America, were sweating dollar signs. Then Ms. Collins convened her group, which took very seriously its job of fiddling around the bill's edges. By the time they emerged, Conrad, Nelson & Co. were boasting that the final Senate product was a "bipartisan compromise" that demonstrated their continued commitment to "fiscal responsibility." Only in Washington can adding $20 billion to an $817 billion House bill earn you praise as a deficit hawk.

Barack Obama meanwhile can thank them for providing cover for the fiction that the bill, post-"compromise," had somehow been shorn of its worst waste. Going into the Collins huddle, the "stimulus" contained $2 billion for a power plant in Illinois, $75 million for the Smithsonian, $300 million for government cars, and dozens of other embarrassing projects. Coming out of the Senate it contained $2 billion for a power plant in Illinois, $75 million for the Smithsonian, $300 million for government cars, dozens of other embarrassing projects, an additional $420 million for Maine's Medicaid program, and an additional $6.5 billion for the National Institutes for Health (courtesy of Mr. Specter). There's good reason why the Senate's true fiscal disciplinarians -- say, Tom Coburn or Jim DeMint -- didn't get down with the "compromise" party.

And then there's the self-cover. Ms. Snowe had to be worried that someone might remember that she's spent 13.99 of her 14 years in the Senate publicly agonizing, usually in view of a camera, about the "deficit." Or that as recently as, oh, January, she was fervently devoted to "paygo" -- which she waived in deference to $839 billion in deficit spending. She might have even worried her enthusiasm for this bill might finally, after all these years, highlight that her fiscal responsibility only surfaces when it is time to oppose a tax cut, and that she's never met spending she didn't love.

But no worries! Who has time to remember all those obvious facts? If there's one thing the Maine duo love and understand it's the press, which has a habit of forgetting everything in the face of a hearty, happy compromise. These days, the most dangerous place for Chuck Schumer in Washington is between Susan Collins and a camera.

Still unclear is how all this cover will change the final stimulus votes. Now that Sens. Snowe, Collins and Specter have provided their "bipartisan" imprimatur, some House GOP and Democratic Blue Dog critics may well feel free to join in.

If nothing else, this should tip the GOP to the melodrama it can expect with each new legislative item. Any one or two Republicans will have "power" to veto bills -- and will be feted for a willingness to bargain -- though these will be Republicans who would have voted with Democrats anyway, and who will demand little by way of principled change. As Mitch McConnell noted, the voting behavior of these folks is no different today than last year. All that's changed "is that 49 is more than 41."

Nor will the GOP Three be alone. In a city where senators love to be relevant, Harry Reid will be offering lots of opportunity. Some Republicans had hoped the upcoming retirements of Ohio's George Voinovich or Florida's Mel Martinez might unleash their inner conservatives. Instead, both considered voting for the Senate package.

To their credit, the rest of the GOP has played this well. The instinct would have been to bash on their colleagues, but that would have only focused attention on GOP scrabbling. Members have focused on pushing the message that this remains a bad bill written by, justified by, and passed by, Democrats. Cover aside.

Ms. Strassel is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board.

Kimberley Strassel

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