Republicans may be less eager than Obama for bipartisanship

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.

Before the president arrived at the Capitol, GOP leaders urged all of their members to vote against the measure. White House officials said they viewed this as acting in bad faith; Republicans blamed Obama for allowing House Democrats to write a flawed bill.

This year, in a meeting that was at the last minute opened to the media and televised, Obama attended a House Republican retreat in Baltimore. Appearing onstage while the lawmakers raised their hands from their seats to ask questions, Obama effectively deflected much GOP criticism of his policies.

Republicans later complained that the president had used the session to embarrass them and command the room instead of to discuss policy issues.

And at behind-the-scenes meetings at the White House, top Republicans and Obama not only were unable to agree on key issues, but they descended into criticism of each side's motives.

In one such meeting last December, a group of House Republican leaders came to the White House armed with their plan to create jobs. Rep. Dave Camp (Mich.), now slated to be chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, criticized the president, saying uncertainty about his agenda had created worry among businesses and kept them from hiring.

The president shot back, saying the real problem was that Republicans were blocking everything he tried to do and effectively rooting for the economy to fail so they could win the 2010 midterm elections.

Cantor also frequently recalls an exchange he had with Obama at another White House meeting, in early 2009, on tax policy. As they debated the issues, the president gave an argument that had little to do with the economy.

"I won," he said, reminding Cantor of his 2008 presidential victory.

Finding rapport

Mike McCurry, who was White House press secretary in 1995, when President Bill Clinton was trying to work with a new GOP majority, said it will be important for Obama to build a kind of behind-the-scenes rapport with Boehner and GOP leaders, as Clinton with did then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.).

"Clinton was very good at schmoozing and small talk," McCurry said. "My argument is President Obama needs to master the art of small talk, learn how to hear what people are saying."

But other factors are driving Obama and congressional Republicans apart.

Many conservative activists don't want the GOP to compromise on any major issues. And as Obama has suggested that he wants to reach a deal on tax cuts with the GOP, his party's base has criticized him.

"It's the difference between governing and politics," said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic strategist who advised Obama's presidential campaign. "You've got a lot of groups on the left saying 'no compromise and fight,' but at the same time, he's the leader, so he has to get some things done to satisfy the independents. He has to find that happy medium."

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