Judging from all the Republican governors in D.C.'s media spotlight this weekend, a casual observer might have wondered if any Democratic chief executives were joining them for the annual National Governors Association meeting.
They were, of course, but with reporters focused on the GOP's intraparty debate on the wisdom of the stimulus package, the Democrats were largely an afterthought. Indeed, as one reporter interviewed Indiana Republican Mitch Daniels on his party's stimulus split, Michigan Democrat Jennifer Granholm joked that her GOP counterparts were "getting all the questions" at the NGA meeting and pulled Daniels aside for a private conversation.
The debate flared up right before the three-day confab began Saturday when a handful of GOP governors led by Mark Sanford of South Carolina signaled that they might turn down some of the stimulus aid to their states, especially spending on unemployment compensation. Those joining Sanford included Govs. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Butch Otter of Idaho and Rick Perry of Texas. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who was a conspicuous no-show at the NGA gathering, has also been a sharp critic of the stimulus bill.
Sanford ultimately decided to accept stimulus money to raise unemployment checks in his state by $25 a week, but he held firm against other portions of the package. Over the weekend, he raised the prospect that his state might also reject energy conservation block grants. "Clearly the spending is unsustainable," said Sanford. "We need to be looking at the bigger picture here."
And from the South Carolinian's view, the GOP split is likely to persist. "I think this is going to stay alive because this [stimulus] thing's not going to work," said Sanford.
In the opposing corner are Govs. Charlie Crist of Florida, Jim Douglas of Vermont, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Jodi Rell of Connecticut, who signed a letter with 14 Democratic governors to President Obama backing the measure earlier this month. Crist became the poster boy of GOP governors supporting the stimulus package after he introduced Obama at a town hall meeting in Fort Myers where the president stumped for his plan. In an interview before the NGA meeting, Crist said he backed he backed the stimulus as "a matter of practicality and pragmatism." He added: "You deal with the realities of an economic crisis, the impact it's having on your state, and the fact that this plan in my view was going to pass anyway, so let's do the best we can with a difficult situation and try to help the people first."
Many Republican governors seemed more comfortable on the sidelines of their intraparty debate. "I'm sitting it out," Daniels said. He added, "I'm rooting for the bill to work. I'm trying to use its funds wisely."
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said that while he would have voted against the stimulus bill had he been a member of Congress, he didn't urge Republicans in Georgia's congressional delegation to oppose the measure because he would have "felt a little uncomfortable lobbying against it knowing we would use some portion of it." So far, Perdue said, he and his staff haven't decided to reject any of the stimulus money, but their review process isn't over yet.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said that he opposed the stimulus bill because it spent too much, the funds were not targeted enough, and the final measure, which was only supported by three Republican senators, did not match Obama's pledge to govern in a bipartisan manner.
But Pawlenty parted ways with his GOP colleagues who said they would reject the increased funding for unemployment compensation. Pawlenty said his state would accept all the stimulus funds in part because Minnesota already sends more tax dollars to Washington than it receives in federal funds.