Lawmakers Tend the Fallout from Econ Plan at Home

By: Frederic J. Frommer and John Milburn
By: Frederic J. Frommer and John Milburn

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) -- Maryland Democrat Frank Kratovil carries both the weight and the promise of the stimulus package on his shoulders more than many other lawmakers do.

He's a freshman from a conservative district that voted against the package before he voted for it. If the economy keeps sinking now, there could well be heck to pay in the next election.

Nearly 1,200 miles away, from another precarious perch, Kansas Republican Lynn Jenkins was out defending her vote against the new stimulus law and, like Kratovil, holding her finger to the wind.

Republicans voted as a bloc against the $787 billion package of tax cuts. For better or worse, Democrats have ownership.

It's too early to see the effects, or for public opinion to settle from the quickly assembled legislation that scatters $787 billion in tax cuts and new spending across the economic landscape.

Neither Kratovil nor Jenkins is waiting for all of that. Like lawmakers everywhere, they are trying to frame the argument before voters can really grasp the consequences.

And both face difficult questions about their positions. On one hand, it's a colossal sum for the nation to spend on a plan that may or may not work. On the other hand, it brings substantial money into their communities, schools, health programs and job sites.

Jenkins, also a freshman, took a gamble of her own in opposing a plan bound to bring relief to hard-pressed swaths of her swing district. And unlike Republicans who opposed the package but trumpet its local benefits, she hasn't hedged her bets. She's just plain against it.

At a charity soup event Jenkins ladled chili as she lent a sympathetic ear when Pat Castle, a 68-year-old Wal-Mart greeter who was working next to her, complained about all that spending.

"I don't think it's right that they are making us taxpayers bail them out for doing stupid things with their money," Castle said.

Jenkins is getting a lot of that.

"I think Pat summarized the overarching message very well," she said. "What I'm hearing most about this is, they have bailout fatigue."

Support for the plan slipped to 52 percent from 55 percent a month earlier in an Associated Press-GfK poll released last week after Obama signed the package into law.

Yet respondents endorsed the way Democrats in Congress are handling the economy, 49 percent giving approval and 45 percent disapproving.

Like many other members of Congress, Kratovil and Jenkins used last week's congressional break to take their own pulse of the public.

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After voting against his party's $819 billion stimulus plan, Kratovil was largely spared arm-twisting from party leaders to switch his vote when the leaner stimulus bill came back before the House.

"I think everybody just assumed I would vote against it again," he said.

Kratovil, a fiscally moderate Blue Dog Democrat in a seat held the previous 18 years by a Republican, switched anyway, citing improvements in the spending and the lower cost.

"I do think that in the end, a vast majority of people who voted against did it for purely partisan reasons," he said. "And given the economic situation this country's in, my view was, it wasn't going to get any better, and we needed to do something. It was irresponsible to not act."

He's hearing again from voters on both sides of the issue.

"Just as it was after the first one - mixed," he said of the reaction. "I've had a lot of calls, people calling saying, 'Thank you for voting for it.' And then I've had folks calling, not very happy at all."

The National Republican Congressional Committee is already beginning robo-calls.

"At first Frank Kratovil voted with the taxpayers of Maryland," a female voice says. "But then he changed his position to side with the special interests in Washington, D.C."

Kratovil was one of 11 Democrats to vote against the initial bill; by the time the second, smaller stimulus came before the House, that number had shrunk to seven.

At an Annapolis constituent meeting, people didn't seem too upset with his changing votes.

Bob Simmons, a Republican and retired business executive from Centreville, Md., said he strongly supported Kratovil's initial vote against the stimulus bill.

"It was (a) ridiculous continuation of spending of programs - it was not a stimulus program," said Simmons. But he saw the later version as a "reasonable compromise" and wasn't upset when the congressman voted for it.

"No, because I didn't think it was going to get any skinnier than it was," he said.

Steve Harper, 47, of Arnold, Md., who mounted a run for the congressional seat himself last year, said he didn't fault his former opponent for his initial vote.

"It's a tough district for a Democrat to run in," Harper said. "And so, he's trying to thread the needle, to ensure that he's supporting both sides. ... He has to keep a certain number of conservatives on board, because it's a very conservative district."

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Jenkins is a former state treasurer who defeated Democratic Rep. Nancy Boyda in November. Her 2nd District includes the capital of Topeka, two Army installations, three state universities and rolling farmland.

"I'm not sure any vote is easy to make," she said.

Still, she said she heard overwhelmingly from constituents telling her to vote against the stimulus package, despite calls by the AFL-CIO urging residents to press her to support it.

Jenkins wanted more tax relief, a larger share of the package to go to roads and bridges, and no money at all for the arts or other government programs she considers waste.

"Constituents know how best to use their money to stimulate the economy," she said. "People need to really keep in mind at the end of the day, this is not free money.

"Somebody's paying for this. It's probably going to be my kids and my grandkids."

Even so, she encountered a number of people and places in line for federal support as her day progressed.

She began her morning reading to a second-grade class at Lecompton Elementary School and chatting with Superintendent Denis Yoder.

Kansas school districts face a cut of $33 per student in base aid for the year that ends June 30. More cuts were expected next term but now federal aid could offset them.

From there she visited Cottonwood Inc. in Lawrence, where 600 disabled people get a variety of services and make cargo straps for the armed forces in the final year of a second, five-year contract. The billions more that Washington is pouring into Medicaid are welcomed there.

State health services should improve as a result, and it's hoped that will free money to pay the workers higher wages as well as shrink the state's waiting list for services needed by disabled people.

The White House says the package could be worth 8,400 jobs in Jenkins' district, which is suffering less than most from the recession. The district's unemployment rate is 5.1 percent, a third below the national average.

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John Milburn reported from Topeka, Kan. Associated Press writers Cal Woodward and Ann Sanner in Washington contributed to this report.

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