WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For many Republican governors, the $789 billion U.S. economic stimulus package is the equivalent of cod liver oil: they’ll take it, but don’t expect them to like it.
While almost every Republican in Congress has firmly opposed the huge spending bill, the nation’s 22 Republican governors, including many possible presidential candidates, have struggled to reconcile their party’s small-government philosophy with their need to patch shredded state budgets.
Some suggested they might not accept their share of the billions earmarked to help states pay their bills, but most have said they will accept the money even if they think the bill is flawed.
Republican governors like Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana are poised to take on a national role as the party seeks direction after devastating electoral losses in 2006 and 2008 and must show that their states have prospered under their leadership.
But by accepting federal money that could help their states weather the recession, the governors risk muddying their party’s small-government message, analysts say.
“When Republicans say they’re against big government, it’ll be easy to point to all these states where Republican governors embraced the funding,” Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer said.
Unlike the federal government, state governments are required by their constitutions to balance their budgets and they now face anticipated shortfalls of $200 billion, according to the National Governors Association.
The stimulus package includes $54 billion to help states plug their budget gaps and pay for school modernization projects. Another $90 billion would help state governments pay for Medicaid health care for the poor.
Democratic governors, like their fellow lawmakers in Washington, largely support the bill.
Faced with such concrete needs, most governors have struck a less confrontational tone than party chairman Michael Steele, who on Thursday denounced the package as a “spending boondoggle” in USA Today.
“Republican governors agree that this bill is far from perfect,” said Mike Schrimpf of the Republican Governors Association. “However, governors have a fiduciary responsibility to do what they think is best for their state and what might be good for Florida is not necessarily what is good for Mississippi.”
Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who faces a $3.5 billion budget shortfall over the next two years, appeared with President Barack Obama on Monday to promote the bill.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vermont Governor James Douglas and Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell also back it.
Others have been more circumspect.
Jindal, who is frequently mentioned as a future presidential candidate, has said he would have voted against the package if he were still in the House of Representatives, but as governor will “carefully consider” the final version that emerges from Congress to see how it will help his state.
Jindal can’t afford to leave that money on the table, but “he has to grumble about it while he stuffs it in his pocket,” said Southern Methodist University Professor Cal Jillson.
Pawlenty, another presidential prospect, has derided the package as wasteful but plans to use $920 million to help close his state’s $4.8 billion budget deficit.
Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who became a favorite of conservatives after her vice-presidential run last year, has said she will have to consider the benefits and drawbacks of accepting federal cash.
Observers expect they will take the money, said Southern Methodist University professor Cal Jillson.
Others, including South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, have said they oppose the package and have suggested that they might not accept any federal funds that come with it.
Rick Perry, governor of Texas, has launched an online petition to “stop the bleeding” of government spending in a bid to rally the conservative voters he will need to fend off a primary challenge from Kay Bailey Hutchinson in 2010.