By Jarrett Renshaw
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) – Thomas McGarrigle, Republican Party chairman in Pennsylvania's Delaware County, is certain that President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package is bloated with Democratic goodies and benefits Americans who have not missed a paycheck during the pandemic.
But McGarrigle had no grand plans to criticize Biden when the Democratic president on Tuesday makes the county his first stop on a "Help is Here" tour to tout the economic stimulus plan, passed by Congress despite unified Republican opposition.
"We will welcome the president, because we respect the office," McGarrigle said.
After all, McGarrigle said he is not certain many voters in this Philadelphia suburb share his negative view toward the new law, which the state's independent Fiscal Office has calculated will pump some $65 billion into Pennsylvania.
"Time will tell. It's a massive bill and we will have to see how this plays out and whether it will be an issue in 2022," McGarrigle said, referring to mid-term elections in which Republicans will seek to regain control of Congress.
McGarrigle's uncertainty over how the measure will play out politically underscores a Republican dilemma, particularly in suburban regions where Democrats have gained popularity following Donald Trump's turbulent presidency. While no Republicans voted for it in Congress, the new law is popular with Democratic and Republican voters alike.
As Biden and his allies flood local media markets in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Las Vegas and elsewhere to promote the measure this week, the Republican National Committee is pledging to push back.
"Our teams on the ground will be responding in real time to Democrat hypocrisy, making sure voters know how little 'relief' this bill provides," Republican National Committee spokeswoman Mandi Merritt said.
With an estimated 160 million households getting $1,400 relief checks, about $350 billion pouring into state and local coffers, and billions of dollars more for industries, opposition to the package may be a hard sell, political consultants from both parties said.
In a telling sign, Republican Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi on Twitter lauded the $28.6 billion in aid to restaurants after the bill passed even though he voted against it.
Republicans instead may emphasize "culture war" issues, focus on the surge of migrants along the U.S.-Mexican border and push for more laws at the state level imposing voting restrictions, the consultants said.
'HARD TO COUNTER'
In contrast, the negative Republican response to Democratic former President Barack Obama's 2009 economic stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act, dubbed Obamacare, was relentless.
Republicans at the time were ruthless in attacking Obama, recalls Phil Schiliro, who served as Obama's director of legislative affairs.
"It's hard to counter when they lie, like on death panels, and it got lots of media attention," said Schiliro, referring to the false Republican claim that Obamacare would ration life-and-death medical coverage for Americans.
The Republican response to Biden's relief package may be different, Schiliro said, in part because of the grim reality of the pandemic's impact in a country whose COVID-19 death tally leads the world.
"There's a daily death toll and Republicans will have a real challenge to make it caricature," Schiliro said.
After Obama helped secure passage of the $787 billion stimulus package in 2009, Republicans argued that it was full of wasteful government spending and failed to create jobs, even as some touted the federal dollars flowing into their states.
"The Obama administration tried to move on to other priorities, but Republicans just stayed there and kept hammering the message," Schiliro said.
The 2009 measure created between 1.4 and 3.3 million new jobs, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found. But by January 2010, about 75 percent of Americans said at least half the stimulus money had been wasted, a CNN poll found.
The conservative Tea Party movement emerged at a time when Republicans were assailing Obama's stimulus plan.
This time around, the Republican Party is recalibrating after a pro-Trump mob attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in a rampage that left five people dead. Some Republican lawmakers who did not embrace Trump's false claims of voting fraud in the 2020 election have decided not to seek re-election.
Jeff Bartos, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, said he is unsure why Republicans have not unified on their criticism of Biden's package, but expressed confidence that Americans would turn against it because of its price tag.
"We are mortgaging our children's, our grandchildren's future with this bill, which will require us to raise taxes," Bartos said.
Other Republicans promise to keep a close eye on how the money is distributed, including whether there is waste and fraud.
"We look forward to educating voters about the disastrous socialist policies in Democrats' corrupt, $1.9 trillion boondoggle that will be here long after the $1,400 checks are spent," National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Michael McAdams said.
(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw; Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Nandita Bose; Editing by Heather Timmons and Will Dunham)
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