Suddenly their Democratic colleagues told them the negotiations were over, on orders from the Obama team.
A more liberal version of the bill passed the House on Jan. 14, 2009, with 40 Republican votes. The Senate approved it 15 days later. Nine Republicans voted for it, but neither Hatch nor Grassley supported it.
“We had all stuck our necks out to create a bipartisan bill, only to have the rug pulled out from under us at the beginning of the Obama administration,” said a Grassley aide who declined to be identified, in order to talk about the internal negotiations. “The point was made to them: Do you really want health-care negotiations to start off by undoing so completely an agreement that had been reached?”
Obama passed up another opportunity early in his presidency to show his commitment to changing Washington’s ways. It came after Congress approved an omnibus spending bill that was filled with earmarks.
The president’s political advisers argued that he should veto the bill as a way to begin to fulfill his campaign pledge. Others argued that a veto would enrage lawmakers who had negotiated the package.
“The argument was if you do this you’re going to blow up relations with Congress that could jeopardize the recovery act,” Pfeiffer said.
Obama signed the bill, a decision he has since said he regrets.
After the stimulus fight, Obama turned his attention to health care and what turned into another huge, partisan brawl. For many months, Obama worked patiently to win the support of at least a few key Republican senators. White House officials and key Republicans point to an Aug. 6, 2009, meeting between the president and half a dozen members of the Senate Finance Committee as another turning point in the hardening of partisan lines.
By that time, the health-care debate had become inflamed around the country. Tea party activists were already taking aim at the various versions of the legislation. The month of August would become consumed with news reports of angry shouting matches at lawmakers’ town hall meetings.
The president and several of his top advisers met in the Oval Office with six senators from the Finance Committee, the crucial body attempting to develop a bipartisan health-care bill.
Many Democrats, including liberal activists, were losing patience with the committee and its chairman, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). But at the beginning of August, Obama still held out hope that he could win Grassley’s support and that the Senate committee could move forward on a bipartisan basis.
According to several people who were in the room that day, Obama posed a question to Grassley. If the White House were to agree to changes in the bill, was he in a political position to lend his support? Grassley said no.
“You realized at that point, yes, we had sort of crossed the Rubicon,” said Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary at the time. “Regardless of what we came up with, they just weren’t going to be for it.”
Grassley explains his decision differently, based on the experience of the stimulus debate. Obama “said to me would I be willing to be one of two or three Republicans to vote with Democrats to get health care passed,” Grassley said. “I said in front of the president and the other five senators, no. . . . I said no because this isn’t the premise that I went to the negotiating table with with Baucus. We were trying to get broad bipartisan support.”
The August meeting brought an end to discussions between Grassley and the White House. “Since that August meeting, I haven’t had a single telephone conversation with the president,” Grassley said.
White House officials saw Grassley’s hesitation as evidence of a lobbying effort by McConnell to keep his party unified in opposition to the president’s initiative.
“If anybody even hinted they were having a discussion with us, their next appointment was in Mitch McConnell’s office,” Gibbs said.
McConnell makes no apologies for his strong opposition.
“It wasn’t for purposes of embarrassing anybody,” he said. “It was to try to stop it. I think it’s a 2,700-page monstrosity, a huge, huge mistake.”
But White House officials also say Grassley’s reluctance reflected the rising power of the tea party. That summer, tea party activists had blocked Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah in his bid for reelection. Elsewhere, tea party candidates were winning primaries.
Grassley takes issue with the White House analysis. He denies that McConnell exerted undue pressure on him and claims he was not cowed by the threat of a primary challenge by tea party activists. He said it was Obama who proved to be something other than the candidate who ran in 2008.
“I see a president . . . more concerned about his own personal success than the success of the country, a person who sees things politically and ideologically, more than he does practically,” he said. “When you see things that way, that’s why you aren’t post-partisan.”
Many of the ideas incorporated into the administration’s health-care proposal, including the individual mandate, had come from Republicans. Grassley’s answer to why Republicans nonetheless opposed them was a perfect illustration of how the tea party altered the political terrain.
“We never thought about it from a constitutional point of view, only from a practical point of view,” Grassley said. “When you think about it in terms of the constitution and limited government, it makes you change your mind pretty quickly.”
The president spent even more time trying to win Snowe’s support for a health-care bill. She became, in her words, “a gang of one” under pressure to back the legislation.
“It all fell apart in the summer,” she said. “It was about the death panels. I said, ‘We don’t have death panels in our legislation.’ But everything got so confused. Six packages in the House and a variety in the Senate. It got caught up in the town meetings. It spiraled out of control.”
Eventually, she supported the bill in the Finance Committee, a crucial vote that pushed the measure to the Senate floor. But she balked at approving the final bill. As the bill grew in size and complexity, Snowe said, she urged the president to scale it back, but Obama wasn’t willing. She said she told him during a December meeting that he should call a cooling-off period. “He wasn’t prepared to accept that,” she said.
The health-care bill passed over united Republican opposition and deepened the partisan divisions in the capital. Its passage was in many ways a tribute to the old politics that Obama had derided as a candidate — accomplished through backroom deals and special favors to lawmakers that left a terrible odor with many Americans.
Perhaps there was an alternative strategy that might have gotten it done. But if there was, no one in the White House or on Capitol Hill could persuade Obama that it would be successful. To Obama, the choice by then was between a partisan path that would result in the biggest piece of social welfare legislation in decades or something less partisan that carried no such guarantee of success.
A bipartisan timeout
In November 2010, Republi
cans took control of the House and narrowed the Democrats’ majority in the Senate. Obama called it a shellacking.
Immediately after the election, McConnell said his top political goal would be to deny Obama a second term. White House officials say it was yet another sign that Republicans would resist the president’s initiatives at every opportunity. McConnell says that conveniently overlooks what happened next.
“What they don’t point out,” McConnell said, “is that I said the election is two years away and in that very same month, Biden and I were negotiating tax extension.”
Those negotiations came during an unusually productive lame-duck session. McConnell and Biden worked out an agreement to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for two years. In return, the Republicans agreed to a payroll tax cut favored by the White House as a way to pump more money into the economy.
Many liberals in Congress hated the deal. Grass-roots activists saw it as a sign that a politically weakened Obama did not have the backbone to stand up to the Republicans. The measure passed and Obama went on to win a series of victories during the session, including ratification of the new Start nuclear agreement and an end to the Pentagon’s policy barring gay people from serving openly in the military.
Obama, his advisers say, came away from the experience with a renewed, if mistaken, hope that compromise and cooperation might be possible. But the political climate during the lame-duck session was an anomaly. What followed was eight months of contentious debate over the budget and the deficit.
As Obama was pushing through his lame-duck agenda, the fiscal commission headed by former Republican senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Erskine Bowles, who was chief of staff in the Clinton White House, concluded their work on a plan to deal with the country’s massive debt and deficit problem.
Obama had appointed the commission only after Congress failed to enact legislation to create an 18-member bipartisan commission. Congress failed in large part because seven Republican senators who had earlier co-sponsored similar legislation declined to vote for it with Obama in the White House. Simpson regarded the Republicans’ decision not to support it as “a shot at the president and nothing more.”
The commission reported at the beginning of December. (Among those voting no was Rep. Paul Ryan, now the GOP nominee for vice president.) The White House offered only a lukewarm response to the commission’s report. “There was no response at all from the president,” Simpson said. “Just thank you.”
Simpson has two theories about why Obama did not step forward to embrace the report. “He would have been torn to bits by his base,” he said. “Number two, at that stage of his presidency, if he had said, ‘I like this,’ there would have been a unanimous Republican vote against it. He probably took the best choice. Move on.”
In the early months of 2011, Obama and congressional Republicans circled one another as a series of budget negotiations began. The first round ended only hours before a threatened government shutdown.
During those negotiations, Obama held back from offering a broader plan to combat the deficit. When Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, issued his comprehensive budget, which called for major spending cuts and dramatic changes to Medicare, Obama responded with a partisan blast.
The White House invited members of the Simpson-Bowles commission to attend the speech. With Ryan sitting in front of him, the president said: “There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don’t think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill.”
The next day, Simpson and Bowles met with the president. “Erskine said, ‘I thought you were very harsh on the Republicans and on Ryan,’ ” Simpson said. “I said it was like inviting the guy to his own hanging. The best thing was to not invite him or not pillory him. Well [Obama] didn’t like that. . . . He does bristle. Nothing wrong with that. I bristle.”
The debt-ceiling debate in the summer of 2011 offered one more chance for the president and congressional Republicans to truly change the polarized politics of Washington. Instead, the negotiations ended in a breakdown that has governed relations between the parties since.
If Obama wins
All of which leaves the question of what would happen in a second Obama term.
The president’s advisers believe the instinct for consensus remains part of Obama’s basic political makeup — though Republicans still do not. Obama’s team points to the fact that whether as president of the Harvard Law Review or as a member of the Illinois Senate, he found ways to bring together people of opposing views. The current campaign, however, could make hitting a reset button more difficult — if that is the president’s hope or intention.
After the rancor of the past few years, Snowe has announced her retirement and cited the political climate as a reason for her pessimism. She sees blame all around and has not absolved her party from responsibility. But she says that if anything is to change, it will come only through presidential leadership.
“I would hope that he would recognize that he essentially has the capability and the capacity to get it done,” she said. “People expect that of a president. He should be able to use the power of his office to work with Congress in a way they could produce the results that are so desperately needed for the future of our country. . . . Somehow, it has not worked. Perhaps he does not appreciate the dimensions of his own office. I don’t know.”
Obama has said many times that one of his biggest regrets as president is not being able to deliver on his 2008 pledge. This summer, Charlie Rose asked Obama about that during an interview on CBS’s “This Morning.”
“I think there’s no doubt that I underestimated the degree to which in this town politics trump problem-solving. Washington feels as broken as it did four years ago,” Obama said. “And, if you asked me what is the one thing that has frustrated me most over the last four years, it’s not the hard work, it’s not the enormity of the decisions, it’s not the pace. It is that I haven’t been able to change the atmosphere here in Washington to reflect the decency and common sense of ordinary people — Democrats, Republicans and independents — who I think just want to see their leadership solve problems. And there’s enough blame to go around for that.”