As Obama Talks Of Bipartisanship, Definitions Vary

A top Republican called for more mortgage relief and additional tax cuts in President Barack Obama's massive economic stimulus package as Democrats conceded privately they will drop items that have drawn bipartisan criticism. Video by AP
By Alec MacGillis and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 2, 2009

After a week of legislative successes for President Obama, Republicans seized on one asterisk: his inability to line up support from their ranks. As he heads into his second full week in office, members of both parties are waiting to see whether he will regard this as the failure that some have made it out to be -- and how much he is willing to alter his approach if he does.

Both the House's passage of an $819 billion stimulus package and the Senate's passage of a children's health insurance bill broke along party lines, with the stimulus bill not receiving a single GOP vote. The result came despite Obama's meetings with Republicans on Capitol Hill, his invitation to their leaders for cocktails at the White House, and the bipartisan guest list for his Super Bowl party last night. As early as today, he is expected to name a third Republican to his Cabinet -- Sen. Judd Gregg (N.H.), as commerce secretary.

But the White House did not view the rejection of Obama's initial bid at fostering bipartisanship as a stinging disappointment. Even as Obama was unable to pick up their votes, he was left with many Republicans praising his outreach. And judging by Obama's record, it is this tone of mutual respect that -- at least for now -- he may be after as much as actual votes on bills he could pass without significant GOP backing.

The White House remains eager to broaden the consensus around the stimulus package. With the Senate taking up the plan this week, there are signs that Democrats will continue their efforts to get at least a handful of Republicans on board by expanding the tax cuts included in the package and possibly refocusing the spending around shorter-term stimulus instead of the longer-term priorities of Obama and congressional Democrats on health care, energy and other areas.

While many Democrats on the Hill are anxious about the concessions that may yet be on the horizon, some Republicans are wondering whether Obama's outreach, appreciated as it was, may not extend to agreeing to the compromises they want.

"We got the sense that he was very genuine," said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.). But "if he comes and meets with us like that and it doesn't have an impact, it begins to hurt his credibility."

The uncertainty over just how the new president defines bipartisanship traces back to the campaign trail. When Obama called for an end to "broken and divided politics," his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), and others contended that there were few instances in Obama's career when he had made major concessions that upset fellow Democrats to reach agreement with Republicans.

But this, said some who have worked with Obama, overlooked his intent. To Obama, they said, fixing "broken politics" is less about making concessions just for the sake of finding common ground and more about elevating the debate -- replacing cynical gamesmanship and immature name-calling with intellectually honest arguments and respect for the other side's motives. In his book "The Audacity of Hope," Obama waxes nostalgic about the fellowship and vigorous debate of Congress's halcyon days in the mid-20th century more than about the centrist deals the era produced.

Obama's bipartisanship "was as much about style, collegiality and civilness as it was actual movement on issues," said state Sen. Kirk W. Dillard, who was Obama's closest Republican ally in the Illinois legislature. Obama did compromise on major bills on ethics and the death penalty as a state senator, but there were limits, Dillard said: "He always listened to the other side and would move to some degree, but his bipartisanship was clearly about the tone and the way you treat one another . . . and trying to understand the other side -- and not necessarily all about caving in."

The president himself emphasized tone more than the results of congressional roll calls last week. "We're not going to get 100 percent agreement and we might not even get a 50 percent agreement, but I do think that people appreciate me walking them through my thought process," he said. "I hope that I communicated my sincere desire to get good ideas from everybody. And my attitude is that this is the first major piece of legislation that we've been working on the Hill and that over time some of these habits of consultation and mutual respect will take over. But old habits die hard."

Others in the White House rejected the notion that the failure to garner any Republican votes on the stimulus bill represented a conclusive defeat for Obama's call for comity. "There can't be this absurd test on Obama that you try to be bipartisan, but you only got however many votes you get, so you failed," one senior aide said.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs noted that the stimulus bill still has several rounds of voting in front of it, in the Senate and then again in both chambers after a conference committee hashes out differences -- and he predicted that efforts to reach out to Republicans would yet pay dividends.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company