The Republicans Are Smiling, but They're Not Buying

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

President Obama was a bit disoriented yesterday when he emerged from a chat with Republican senators at the Capitol.

After brief words with reporters, he stepped, perhaps reflexively, to board the senators' elevator before aides ushered him in a different direction. "I never know where I'm going anymore," he explained.

Understandably so: As he tries to make nice with GOP lawmakers, Obama is in unmapped territory.

As the president met with House Republicans yesterday in the Capitol basement, Rep. Jeff Flake (Ariz.) got out his BlackBerry and started to Twitter. "President Obama is speaking to House Republicans right now on Democratic stimulus bill," he wrote on the social networking Web site. "Good salesman, bad product."

Flake, stopped in a basement corridor as he departed the room, expanded on his Twitter report. "He's reaching out, he's genuine about it," he said of the new president, but "it's like trying to sell a Ford Pinto."

Obama spent an hour with the House GOP, and lawmakers emerged saying very nice things about him. But would they vote for his stimulus plan?

"No, but he's a charming guy," said Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.).

"No," said Rep. Kevin Brady (Tex.), but it was a "very warm dialogue."

"Probably not," Rep. Louie Gohmert (Tex.) said with a grin that made clear his "no" vote is certain. But "he's truly a nice guy."

Forecasts call for no more than 12 Republicans to vote for Obama's stimulus plan today, and "it's closer to zero than 12," said Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.), one of a dozen Republicans invited to meet with Obama staff chief Rahm Emanuel at the White House last night. Rep. Roy Blunt (Mo.) chuckled when asked whether Obama had won his vote. Rep. Dan Lungren (Calif.) laughed. Rep. Dan Burton (Ind.) guffawed.

Last week, Obama ushered in the post-partisan era. This week, it looks as if the post-post-partisan era is already upon us. "I don't expect 100 percent agreement from my Republican colleagues," the president said after his House GOP meeting.

"We might not even get 50 percent agreement," he amended two hours later, after his session with Republican senators.

For eight years, congressional Democrats howled about President George W. Bush's my-way-or-the-highway approach, and Republicans accused them of intransigence. Now, just a week into the Obama presidency, the two sides have switched sides, seamlessly.

"Yes, we wrote the bill," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last week. "Yes, we won the election."

Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, was still smarting about that quotation when the committee gathered to consider the stimulus package yesterday morning. "This bill is not the result of the usual bipartisan negotiations," he protested, accusing Democrats of a secret "deal to vote down our amendments."

In the building next door, the Senate Appropriations Committee was pondering the same measure, and Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) was protesting that "I received this legislation -- 433 pages that spends $365 billion -- less than 24 hours ago."

On the Senate floor, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) was railing about a Democratic health bill. "When President Obama was elected, I believed his promise of bipartisan change," he said ruefully.

House Republican leaders had announced their opposition to the stimulus plan even before they heard from Obama, who, in his private meeting with the lawmakers, said he was making an "honest effort to deal with a tough problem."

But his audience was skeptical. Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), chairman of the House GOP caucus, complained to Obama that Democrats had done "no negotiating" with House Republicans, according to a participant who took notes.

Brady got applause from his fellow Republicans when he asked Obama to "assure us that this stimulus will not be an excuse to raise taxes and have wasteful spending."

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), 82, rose to tell Obama: "I remember when FDR beat Hoover. Don't you think we should not solve our personal and local problems by burdening future generations of Americans?" His colleagues applauded.

Obama was amiable, if not malleable. "Feel free to whack me over the head, because I probably will not compromise on that part," he told Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) when challenged on the composition of tax cuts. Obama said he would risk the heat: "I will watch you on Fox News and feel bad about myself."

After the session, lawmakers were besieged by reporters in a dim basement corridor strung with exposed pipes and ducts. They were flattered by the presidential attention, but unmoved.

"Throwing money at the problem," grumbled Gohmert.

"He's been in office, what, eight days?" contributed Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.).

The brief tenure may explain why Obama is not yet discouraged. "Over time, some of these habits of consultation and mutual respect will take over," he said after his meetings. "But, you know, old habits die hard."

Evidently. On his way out of the Capitol, Obama passed by Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), who was telling a crowd of reporters about his meeting with the president. "We've been totally shut out," he was saying. "We've been shut out."

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