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As Obama Talks Of Bipartisanship, Definitions Vary

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.

But he added: "This can't be a one-way street. The president has done a lot to reach out. I think the American people will understand that message quite clear."

As Republicans see it, the main obstacle to Obama's call for greater cooperation is the Democratic congressional leadership.

"I think it may be time . . . for the president to kind of get ahold of these Democrats in the Senate and the House . . . and shake them a little bit and say, look, let's do this the right way," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said yesterday on CBS's "Face the Nation."

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) experienced the contrast between Obama's outreach and hardball Capitol Hill politics three days into the president's term.

Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, had invited Hatch to his White House office, and 45 minutes into the meeting, an unexpected guest dropped by: Obama. He ushered Hatch to the Oval Office, where, a minute later, Vice President Biden, a longtime friend of Hatch's, joined them for a private chat.

"They know I'm somebody you can work with," Hatch said later.

But when Hatch returned to the Capitol, his mood turned. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) had refiled a bill expanding children's health insurance in a form that differed from a bipartisan bill that Hatch co-authored in 2007 with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) -- the new bill included a controversial expansion of coverage for the children of legal immigrants.

Instead of cheering on the expansion of a program he helped create in 1997, Hatch spent the week trying to change the legislation, to little avail. The bill passed on Friday, with Hatch and all but nine Republicans opposing it.

"That's the perfect illustration, I think, of a lack of faith," Hatch said, calling the move on the legislation a "pure partisan" stunt.

Democrats on Capitol Hill laugh off the Republicans' accusations. "Being bipartisan does not mean having to lay down and say we'll do whatever you want," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters.

With slim majorities in 2007 and 2008, Democrats practically shut down the committee process and often drafted key legislation behind closed doors in leadership suites. Once legislation was brought to the floor in the House and Senate, Democratic leaders often shut off the debate process and set up rules that did not allow GOP alternatives to be considered.

Since the 2008 elections, when Democrats expanded their numbers to 257 in the House and at least 58 in the Senate, they have loosened up their restraints. For the stimulus legislation, several House committees held public markups of the bill, which included some minor alterations offered by Republicans. On the floor, 11 amendments were considered and the GOP offered its own alternative, which focused on tax cuts for businesses and individuals.

But Republicans say the Democrats' version of bipartisanship is superficial at best. For the concept to mean something, they say, it needs to involve Republicans earlier in the process, with bills hashed out at the committee level so that a bipartisan majority on the panel can pass out a measure and fight for it all the way to the president's desk. Otherwise, said Wamp, "it's like coming into the kitchen after the meal's been cooked and saying, 'Let's cook a meal.' "

Republicans also say that Democratic claims to graciousness are undermined by the aggressive ads that a coalition of left-leaning groups is running on behalf of the stimulus plan, targeting potentially vulnerable GOP senators.

Nicholas E. Calio, who served as President George W. Bush's legislative liaison, said it would be up to Obama to persuade congressional Democrats to open things up further if he wanted to fulfill the promise of his own "excellent job" of outreach. "Part of that process is for him to bring members of his own party along," Calio said.

Such talk sets off alarms among many Democrats, who do not understand why Obama and congressional leaders need to concede on major points after a big victory in November. Already, many Democrats are upset with the inclusion in the stimulus package of $24 billion in business tax breaks that many economists doubt will provide a significant boost to the economy and that will reward some of the companies, such as banks and home builders, that fueled the housing bubble.

Some Democrats worry that to prove his bipartisan credibility, Obama will make further major concessions in adding tax breaks or lowering the bill's spending to win 70 or 80 votes in the Senate instead of settling for a smaller majority made up almost entirely of members of his own party.

"They want to get Republican votes, but they're not going to get very many Republican votes," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). "I'd rather forgo Republican votes and prevent a depression than get Republican votes at the cost of slowing the depression but not stopping a depression."

Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

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