Meeting inside Philadelphia's storied Congress Hall last year, three Democratic governors discussed how to get historic help for their states' bleeding budgets.
Jim Doyle of Wisconsin, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Ted Strickland of Ohio had just left a Dec. 2 meeting with other governors and the then president-elect, Barack Obama, about his stimulus plan to lift the falling economy. The trio worried that other governors had talked too much about federal money for crumbling infrastructure and hadn't stressed ongoing needs such as schools.
"We just started talking about maybe we ought to go to Washington," Strickland said in an interview. "I think quite frankly some very significant things were included in the stimulus bill that probably would not have been included had we not done that."
As part of an eventual "Gang of Six" governors, Doyle helped ensure last month's $787 billion federal stimulus package would help states pay for education and health care, not just infrastructure. That political victory has been heralded by education advocates for preventing teacher layoffs and protecting students, even as it has been assailed by conservatives for imposing an expensive new burden on federal taxpayers.
And it highlighted the growing influence Doyle and other Democratic governors - aided by a party that controls both the White House and Congress - now play on national issues from economic recovery to health-care reform.
"It's a whole different world now," said Doyle, who has traveled at least seven times to the Washington, D.C., area in the last four months and testified before Congress more than he has in the rest of his time as governor. "What's really happened is that we actually have an administration in Washington that's listening to us."
On the national stage
The governor is happy to talk.
In recent months, Doyle has taken the national stage to speak out in favor of high-speed trains and health-care reform, co-hosting a health forum for the White House in Michigan earlier this month.
He said he has already spoken with Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Obama's health and human services secretary nominee, about taking Wisconsin's popular SeniorCare prescription drug plan national as a possible replacement to the federal Medicare Part D plan.
"It seems to me SeniorCare is one they should look at almost immediately," Doyle said. "It's one that would save the federal government a lot of money and make the system easier for people to understand."
But it was with the stimulus plan that Doyle arguably had his biggest impact.
With the state facing a more than $5 billion projected deficit after November's elections, Doyle turned to federal officials such as U.S. Rep. Dave Obey, D-Wausau, the head of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and a key stimulus bill architect.
Early proposals called for reviving the economy mainly through large public works projects. But without massive federal help in other areas, Doyle told Obey, Wisconsin might have to sharply cut spending on schools and health care while raising the state sales tax by a penny per dollar - overburdening an already struggling state economy.
"It didn't make much sense to me to put thousands of people to work on the roads ... if you're laying off thousands of teachers and thousands of health-care workers," Doyle said.
Doyle-Obey tag team
U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, the ranking Republican on the House budget committee, argued the stimulus package should have relied more on tax cuts aimed at helping businesses instead of direct aid to state governments and schools.
"It's replacing state budget deficits with higher federal budget deficits," Ryan said. "But both tap into the same taxpayer."
But Doyle found a ready ally in Obey.
"Jim sort of helped to coordinate the efforts on the outside with the governors and I was working on the inside," Obey said.
On Dec. 11, Doyle testified in front of Obey's committee with Gov. Jon Corzine of New Jersey, who along with Govs. Patrick, Strickland, David Paterson of New York and Jennifer Granholm of Michigan formed the so-called "Gang of Six."
Doyle and Patrick also met with Obama's tough chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, to push for billions of dollars in help for education, much of it outside of existing federal channels of aid for poor districts and special education programs.
A spokeswoman for the White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Policy and politics
Longtime Washington lobbyist Ellen Nissenbaum of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which advocates for federal help for state and federal programs such as unemployment insurance and Medicaid coverage for the poor, said the governors helped the Obama administration and Congress understand the depth of the problem states were facing.
The proposal for federal money for schools was "that rare blend of good policy and good politics" that succeeded in Congress where a simple plea for a blank check for state budgets might not have, Nissenbaum said.
Wisconsin expects to receive about $3.7 billion in federal stimulus money, including about $789 million for schools. That has allowed Doyle in his budget proposal to hold state money for schools roughly even over the next two years while spending less in state tax dollars, budget director Dave Schmiedicke said.
Not everyone is pleased with that. Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, a possible Republican gubernatorial opponent in 2010, said Doyle should have sought to use the federal help for a state sales tax holiday instead. Foreshadowing a future possible campaign theme, Walker said using the temporary federal money will make it harder to balance the state budget in future years.
"What that did is that enabled (Doyle) to not make any other tough decisions in this budget," Walker said of the federal money.