In Washington, Republicans stand united in opposition to President Biden’s first major legislative proposal, a $1.9 trillion economic rescue plan that they have labeled a bloated, budget-busting “blue state bailout.”
But in rural Maine, Anthony McGill, a self-identified conservative Republican, describes the bill as something else entirely: “Most of it sounds like a good idea,” he said.
While Mr. McGill doesn’t agree with all the provisions, he supports the central thrust of the bill — another round of direct stimulus payments to nearly all Americans.
“There’s a lot of people that could use those checks. I don’t know about needing them, but we could all use them,” said Mr. McGill, 52, who voted for former President Donald J. Trump in November. “The debt is so far out of hand that it’s a fantasy number at this point. We might as well just blow it out till everything collapses.”
As Democrats prepare to vote as soon as Friday to pass the relief package in the House, Republican elected officials are struggling to overcome intraparty divides over whether to embrace the major pieces of the proposal — as well as to reconcile with the fact that many Republican voters support the plan. While Democrats are working swiftly to move their bill, Republicans are consumed by sideshows like false claims of voter fraud and what they call cancel culture, which are two major themes of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC, starting on Friday in Orlando, Fla.
The lack of a unified Republican economic message reflects an unsettled party that is unable to agree on how to chart a path through a Democratic-controlled Washington. While congressional Republicans take a scattershot approach to try to undermine the legislation, mayors and governors in their party push for the plan, saying their states and cities need the federal aid to keep police officers on their beats, reopen schools and help small businesses. Polling shows a significant number of Republican voters agree: More than four in 10 Republicans back Mr. Biden’s aid package, according to polling from the online research firm SurveyMonkey for The New York Times. Over all, 72 percent of Americans said they supported the bill, a number that includes 97 percent of Democrats.
Interviews with more than two dozen Trump voters across the country found little consensus on fundamental questions that are central to the party’s future: Who won the election? Who should lead the G.O.P.? And how much should Republicans try to work with the new administration?
“There are things about President Biden that do concern me, but I’ve been told he’s kind of a moderate as far as Democrats go,” said Kelly Alexander, 62, a self-described right-wing conservative who owns a seasonal takeout restaurant in Mackinaw City, Mich. “He’s our president. We need to give him a chance and not pick him apart for no good reason.”
That isn’t the advice Robert Holland, a retiree from Rockland, Me., would give to Republican leaders in Washington.
“Biden and the Democrats are a bunch of stupid fools,” he said. “And the Republicans better get some spine and stop rolling over for them.”
That disconnect over basic political strategy mirrors larger divisions within a party led for four years by a president who shredded mainstream conservative ideology on issues including the national debt, foreign policy and trade.
While Mr. Trump moved a portion of the party’s base away from some of the right-wing economic orthodoxies that had characterized Republicanism for decades, he offered little in the form of a unified doctrine as a replacement. Republicans chose not to adopt a new platform at their national convention last year, instead simply carrying over the one from 2016, and Mr. Trump failed to articulate a second-term policy agenda as he campaigned for re-election.
During his final weeks in office, he demanded that Congress more than triple the stimulus payments included in a December relief plan, a surprise maneuver that undermined Senate Republicans who had spent months opposing such spending. The current legislation would include another round of stimulus payments at $1,400 per person, an amount some Senate Republicans say is too high.
Mr. Trump’s embrace of federal spending has complicated that messaging, downplaying traditional fiscal conservative concerns about the size of the debt and the deficit. This month, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah argued that it was disingenuous for Republicans to raise such concerns considering their recent record. The national debt increased by about $7.8 trillion during Mr. Trump’s term, rising to the highest level since World War II. The surge was partly because of the economic stimulus passed during the pandemic, but also because of the $1.5 trillion unpaid-for tax cut bill in 2017 and Mr. Trump’s unfettered spending.
“When we had a Republican president and House and Senate, we kept on spending massively and adding almost a trillion dollars a year to the national debt,” Mr. Romney told the “Utah Politics” podcast. “Now we say, ‘This is outrageous, adding so much to the debt’?” Mr. Romney, who helped craft the December stimulus bill, has argued that Mr. Biden’s legislation is a “clunker” that would waste money.
Some Republicans share those concerns. Sean Wiley, who voted twice for Mr. Trump and describes himself as a conservative libertarian, said the government needed to provide assistance to people who have lost their jobs in the pandemic but argued that the current package was too large.
Now that more people are being vaccinated and the country is getting back to work, he said, there’s not as much need for a big government stimulus. Mr. Wiley, 52, who lives in Secane, Pa., and builds transmissions for racing cars, said he worried that the Biden bill would unnecessarily add to the national debt.
“We’ve kind of mortgaged the future on this,” he said.
Yet, polling indicates that a notable portion of the Republican base is far more open to the bill. Last month, more than two-thirds of Republicans said they supported increasing individual payments to $2,000 from $600, which Mr. Trump had proposed but Senate Republicans had rejected. Nearly seven in 10 Republicans said it was important for the current bill to include $1,400 direct checks, according to the SurveyMonkey poll.
Many Republican voters who expressed concerns about the size of the stimulus package said they didn’t oppose the direct payments but worried about what they saw as extraneous provisions — like a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and $350 billion in aid for state and local governments.
“People need help right now, and I’m OK with my tax dollars doing that — I’d help feed my neighbors if they needed it,” said Melissa Karn, 53, a Trump voter from the Phoenix suburbs. “But I am not on board with sending money to rebuild and bail out cities that have not been run very well for years.”
Ms. Karn and other Trump supporters find little to like among their leaders in Congress who are making the same arguments, preferring the bombastic, burn-it-down style of the former president. They praised Republicans closely aligned with Mr. Trump, like Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, and offered scorn for those he has clashed with, like Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader.
“It’s like the Republican establishment doesn’t have any common sense,” said Tara Davis, 40, a foster mother in Burlington, N.C. “We’re finding out all this money that’s just been wasted and they couldn’t give people $2,000?”
She added: “It’s sickening. Anyone that the establishment hates, that’s who I like.”
Judy Betty, a Republican and retired principal from Marana, Ariz., said she mostly opposed another round of stimulus payments but felt let down by congressional Republicans who she thinks didn’t fully investigate fraud claims surrounding the election — charges that were repeatedly shown to be baseless.
“I don’t know about the Republican Party, it’s really gotten weird,” she said. “Everything is a lie. I think that is what Trump revealed for a lot of us who were open to him. This whole government is crap.”
Sharon Tomski, 59, a teacher at a Catholic high school in the Milwaukee suburbs, said she believed that any stimulus plan should be targeted for those who lost income as a result of the pandemic. A self-described conservative, Ms. Tomski expressed little desire for the Republican Party to return to an era of fiscal austerity, even as she raised concerns about the possibility that Mr. Trump would again run for the White House.
“I’d prefer he just goes away and lets someone else with his philosophy run,” Ms. Tomski said as she shopped at Bed Bath & Beyond in Waukesha. “I think he’s too polarizing of a figure and needs to hand the baton to someone else.”
Ms. Tomski is unlikely to get her wish anytime soon. Mr. Trump is headlining the conservative conference on Sunday afternoon, an effort to keep control of the party firmly in his grasp. While his presence may buoy a large swath of Republicans, it’s likely to turn off independents and any moderates who supported the former president.
Patricia Dorenbosch, a Republican retiree from Henderson, Nev., said she was turned off by Mr. Trump’s actions after the election, blaming him for stoking the attack on the Capitol and pushing baseless claims about voter fraud. She appreciates the new leadership emerging from Washington, even if it comes from a man she voted against.
“I’m pleased so far — I really am surprised, but I am. I agree with a lot of things Biden is doing,” said Ms. Dorenbosch, 75, who supported Mr. Trump. “We don’t have a lot of this blowhard kind of attitude. We’re not attacking people so much.”
Kay Nolan reported from Waukesha, West Allis and New Berlin, Wis., Hank Stephenson reported from Phoenix and Jon Hurdle reported from Philadelphia.
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