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GOP Replays War of the States

POSTED: February 23, 2009, 7:00 am

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It appears that several, mostly southern Republican governors have decided to reject some of the federal funds targeted for their state out of the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009,” (ARRA) recently signed by President Barack Obama. The resistance of the GOP faction potentially affects not only needy residents in their states but has caused a fissure in the Republican Party over its direction at a time when they are in the minority in both houses of Congress and face a very popular Democrat in the White House.

Leading the charge against some of the provisions of ARRA is Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, himself once the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Governor Sonny Perdue of Georgia along with Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska have indicated they will reject some of the federal funds. These governors are mostly taking issue with the expansion of unemployment insurance, claiming that the provision will increase employer taxes. Meanwhile, other Republican governors like Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California are welcoming the stimulus dollars as much needed relief for their cash strapped states. Governor Crist joined President Obama during a recent town hall meeting in Florida prior to the vote on the stimulus bill. California’s governor just came out of a bruising battle over the state budget that resulted in massive cuts to avoid the state’s fiscal collapse.

The most alarming aspect of the resistance by some Republican governors is that their own residents might not gain some of the benefits of the stimulus package despite the serious economic conditions that exist in those states. For Blacks in those states, already at a disadvantage, the refusal to accept federal funds have some bottom line implications when taking into consideration already high levels of unemployment among Blacks, longer term periods of joblessness, and the mortgage and credit crisis that is also taking its toll among poor and working class households, and increasingly the Back middle class. The choice by these governors to “pick and choose” from the stimulus package should evoke a strong reaction from Black mayors and state legislators in those states, mostly Democrats, who represent constituents that are in desperate need of help.

Republican governors like Bobby Jindal are claiming they have a philosophical difference with the elements in ACCRA, as Barbour of Mississippi has charged that the stimulus package contains too much spending on “social” programs. That charge echoes the criticism of the package by Republicans on the Hill during the debate on the legislation. On the other hand, Schwarzenegger has made it clear that California needs the cash and has expressed his view that Republicans need to step away from hard, partisan positions during this time of economic crisis. Still, despite claims by some Republicans that their opposition is ideologically driven, it is clear that many in the GOP see this as an opportunity to define the party and prepare for the 2010 midterm elections. The party’s posture on the stimulus package will be the hot topic as the Republican Governors Association convenes in Washington today.

What remains to be seen is whether the position of these governors holds up in the court of public opinion. While the President’s poll numbers have come down slightly after the bruising battle over the stimulus bill, Mr. Obama continues to be extraordinarily popular. Polling data has shown that he is even drawing the support of many Republican voters as the recession has forced many Americans to look beyond political ideology for answers to their personal predicaments. Governors such as Jindal, Barbour and Sanford are taking a calculated risk in rejecting federal aid; hoping that the Republican base will rally around them and overlook their own hardships. Unlike members of Congress, governors are on the front lines and engage voters on a variety of quality of life issues that their colleagues on Capitol Hill do not face on a daily basis. Though some of these Republican governors align with Hill Republicans, it is not clear whether they have the same liberty to take a partisan position on the stimulus aid when they are on the ground dealing with budget cuts, layoffs, high unemployment and a housing crisis.

President Obama is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress on Tuesday to deliver a major speech on the economy. It is essentially his “State of the Union,” message and comes just days after he announced his housing recovery plan. Just a month into his presidency and Mr. Obama is fighting two battles: a recession and Republican opposition that could foreshadow serious conflicts ahead on other major components of the President’s agenda.

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