Republicans may be less eager than Obama for bipartisanship

President Obama weathered Democratic losses this fall but also spent time passing out candy and visiting "The Daily Show."
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 11:11 PM

Never mind figuring out what to do about the national debt or the tax cuts that are set to expire soon. President Obama and the Republicans who just won control of the House seem to be having a hard time even setting up a meeting.

GOP congressional leaders told the White House that scheduling conflicts will prevent them from attending a meeting Thursday to which Obama invited them during a news conference two days after his party's drubbing in the midterm elections. They said the timing was bad, with leadership elections and new members to welcome. And they pointed out that they had never officially confirmed.

Presidential aides accepted the explanations. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs joked Wednesday that the announcement of a new date for the gathering, Nov. 30, is a sign that "bipartisanship has happened."

But the postponement - whatever the reason - could be a bad omen for Obama, who was counting on the meeting to start turning around his political fortunes. It appeared to signal that Republicans are less eager than the White House to begin a new era of bipartisanship, and it was a stark example of Obama's diminished ability to bend lawmakers to his will.

Since the electoral rebuke that cost Democrats the House and narrowed their margin in the Senate, Obama has repeatedly suggested that he sees opportunities for compromise with Republicans. He has hinted that he is open to temporarily extending all of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, which are set to expire at the end of the year, including those on income over $250,000. He said over the weekend that he will seek to limit earmarks, a practice that House GOP leaders have long bemoaned.

The newly emboldened Republicans, however, have shown little enthusiasm for compromise.

They say they will insist on keeping in place all the tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), the incoming speaker, and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said that if Obama were serious about curtailing earmarks, he would promise to veto any bill that contains them. And on Tuesday, the Senate's second-ranking Republican, Jon Kyl (Ariz.), said he will not support ratification of the U.S. nuclear treaty with Russia until next year, dealing a potentially fatal blow to one of Obama's top foreign policy priorities.

Few GOP allies

The disagreements are not surprising; each side must bridge not only major policy differences, but two years of animus. Despite his service in the Senate, Obama entered the White House with few close Republican allies.

"There's really been no basis for a relationship," said Terry Holt, a longtime GOP strategist and aide who is an adviser to Boehner.

The White House spent much of 2009 trying to establish closer relations. Obama invited members of Congress from both parties to the White House for small cocktail parties and a Super Bowl gathering, and his aides met repeatedly with Republicans they hoped to woo to support specific bills.

But the relationship seems poisoned by a few incidents.

On the day in January 2009 that they were to vote on the economic stimulus package, Obama arranged to meet with the entire conference of House Republicans in an effort to persuade a few of them to back the legislation.

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