After a couple of weeks in which his presidency seemed to have got off to a bumpy start, Barack Obama at last received some good news. On the night of Monday February 9th a stimulus package worth a whopping $838 billion over the next two years passed a crucial test in the Senate. There are several procedural hurdles still to clear but the vote, which required at least 60 senators to agree to end the debate (which can otherwise be talked out indefinitely, in a process called filibustering), went Mr. Obama’s way.
The stimulus bill is not entirely out of the woods yet. The substantive Senate vote (which requires only a simple majority, now that the “cloture” vote has gone through) should be a formality when it takes place later on Tuesday. But there is still some hard work to be done reconciling the House and Senate versions. Although the two overall sums of money sound similar, this masks some important differences.
The three Republicans whose votes were so crucial in the Senate only voted for the package after securing some cuts that the House Democrats may find hard to swallow. These include a reduction in aid to the states and cuts in the amount to be spent on food stamps, schools and unemployment benefit. Should the Democrats try to restore them, the deal might yet fall apart. Still, the odds look good that Mr. Obama’s target, that the bill be enacted by President’s day on February 16th, will be met.
This is a qualified victory for the president. He has faced down the Republicans and his party’s own left wing, and he looks likely to have got almost everything he has asked for, and on time too. By taking to the airwaves on Monday night, and campaigning for his package in the economically stressed states of Indiana and Florida, he has demonstrated his willingness to make full use of the bully pulpit, to which his oratorical skills are so well suited. This reminded members of Congress that he has the power to appeal, over their heads, directly to the people. Among ordinary Americans he still has a high approval rating of well over 60 percent.
Mr. Obama only achieved his supermajority (of 61, one more than he needed) thanks to the votes of three moderate Republican senators: Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Without them, his plan would have crashed, since the hard truth is that that the president’s dreams of bipartisan government from the political centre has taken a hit. The stimulus bill (or to be precise, a slightly different version of it, costing “only” an estimated $819 billion) passed through the House of Representatives without even a single Republican vote in favour.
What this means for the future of even more difficult legislation, such as Mr. Obama’s plans to set up near-universal health care, is uncertain. Mr.. Obama cannot rely on Ms Snowe, Ms. Collins or Mr. Specter always to be on hand to provide the crucial swing votes in difficult cases. But the numbers do tend to favour him. If, as expected, Minnesota’s interminable electoral disputes eventually end up sending Al Franken, a former comedian, to the Senate, the Democrats will have 59 votes there. Thereafter, in order to win cloture debates, they will need to win over only one centrist Republican.
Depending on the issue, there are plenty of potential candidates: John McCain would probably defy his party over immigration reform, for instance. An eastern Republican, like the three who have saved the stimulus package, might well prove persuadable over health. But rather than bipartisan co-operation Mr. Obama will have to use tactics of divide-and-rule when dealing with the Republicans.