Leaders of most of the 50 states and U.S. territories were attending the three-day winter meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington. The meeting focused on the need for infrastructure improvement, which is expected to absorb much of the stimulus funding directed to states.
Several of the governors were escaping drama in their own states, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican who signed the state's overdue budget last week after a bruising battle with lawmakers over how to plug the state's mammoth $41 billion budget hole.
Another was newly minted Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois, the former lieutenant governor promoted after his predecessor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, was impeached and removed for trying to sell Obama's former Senate seat for cash and favors. Friday, Quinn called on Obama's successor, Roland Burris, to resign after Burris acknowledged he had tried to raise money for Blagojevich, who appointed Burris to the seat.
Yet another, Democrat David Paterson of New York, was trying to beat back criticism for his handling of the choice of a successor for Hillary Rodham Clinton, who resigned her New York Senate seat last month to become Obama's secretary of state. Paterson chose former Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, a conservative Democrat, after appearing to snub Caroline Kennedy, another leading contender.
Paterson's popularity has dropped since the flap, prompting speculation that he could face a primary challenge when he runs for re-election in 2010.
But the federal stimulus money remained the central focus for most governors. Most said it was hardly a bailout and that they were still facing painful cuts to state services.
"We're not just getting a handout here - we're doing the heavy lifting," Vermont GOP Gov. Jim Douglas said. "We're still making tough cuts in budgets, we're making changes in some of our programs. We're doing what we can to live within our means."
For the most part, governors here downplayed an apparent split in Republican ranks over the stimulus plan, which will send billions to states for education, health care and transportation.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a likely 2012 presidential contender, has said he would reject a portion of the money aimed at expanding state unemployment insurance.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has said he may do so as well, as has South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the party's 2008 vice presidential nominee, has also criticized the stimulus but traveled to Washington last month to press for Alaska's share of the money.
Florida GOP Gov. Charlie Crist, a potential 2012 contender and strong supporter of the stimulus plan, said the criticism leveled by other Republicans wasn't rooted in politics.
"I don't know that it's a partisan issue. It's different people, different CEOs - governors - who have a different perspective on how it would impact their states," Crist said in an interview. "I know it has a positive impact on Florida. A lot of that money has been paid to the federal treasury by my fellow Floridians and they deserve to get it back."
At issue for Jindal and Barbour is a provision in the stimulus bill that could allow people ineligible for unemployment benefits to receive them anyway. That could eventually force a tax increase on employers, both governors have said.
Some Democrats took a harder line at a press conference arranged by the Democratic Governors Association to praise Obama for his leadership on the stimulus. DGA Chairman Brian Schweitzer of Montana and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley dismissed GOP detractors as "fringe" Republicans eager to score political points.
"All of us are committed to working with President Obama to pull our nation's ecoomy out of the ditch that George W. Bush ran it into," O'Malley said. "If some of the fringe governors don't want to do that, they need to step aside and not stand in the way of the nation's interests."
The line drew a rebuke from Sanford, the Republican Governors Association chairman.
"I think in this instance I would humbly suggest that the real fringe are those that are supporting the stimulus," Sanford said. "It is not at all in keeping with the principles that made this coutnry great, not at all in keeping with economic reality, not in keeping with a stable dollar, and not in keeping with the sentiments of most of this country."
On the Net: National Governors Association: http://www.nga.org/
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