By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2011; 2:59 PM
With the Wisconsin state Assembly taking the first major legislative step toward enactment of a controversial law to sharply curtail collective bargaining rights of public workers, Democratic governors meeting in Washington offered pointed criticism of the plan's architect, Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said Walker's approach represents a recipe for failure and ill will.
"When you're facing tough challenges ... I think it's best to bring people to do that," he said at a session hosted by Politico on Friday morning. "When you try to vilify, make one side of the equation the enemy, I think you're asking for trouble."
But Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R ), who appeared at the same forum, came to Walker's defense, suggesting that the Wisconsin governor was doing what he was elected to do. "For me to tell Martin [O'Malley] how to run his state or for him to tell me how to run my state is a little bit over the line. The key is, you believe what you believe in. We had elections."
The governors were in town for Saturday's opening of the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association. Those meetings are normally an island of bipartisanship in a deeply polarized capital.
But with strong Republican opposition to the president's health-care law and other federal policies, and with Obama having called Walker's legislation "an assault" on the unions, both sides are preparing for rhetorical conflict throughout the weekend.
Obama will host the governors Sunday night for a black-tie dinner and will meet with them again Monday for a session that is likely to include some direct give-and-take about some of the policies the Republicans most dislike.
In an unusual move, Obama met with a dozen Democratic governors Friday morning. It was the first time in anyone's memory that the president had scheduled a session with his own party's governors on the eve of the NGA weekend. That raised questions about whether it was an effort to develop strategy and talking points for the weekend jousting, but White House and other Democrats denied that was the case.
Emerging from the meeting, O'Malley told reporters outside the White House that the session included no discussion of the battle in Wisconsin or more generally the issue of public employee compensation, benefits and bargaining rights.
"We were focused today on the things we can do together to create jobs," he said, adding, "We didn't talk about whatever it is they're doing in Wisconsin."
O'Malley said the meeting with Obama and Vice President Biden provided an opportunity to share advice from business leaders in their states - another sign of the White House's desire to demonstrate that the president is listening to a constituency with whom he has had a rough relationship.
But as the news conference broke up, other Democratic governors offered their opinions of Walker and the legislative battle in the Midwest.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) called the situation in Madison "a mess" that could have long-term implications. "Every governor's got to use his own model, but I don't know how this ends in a good way," he said.
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D), who has had conflict with public employee unions in his state over budget cuts, said, "As painful as it is for us to have these collective bargaining conversations, and as much as it would make my own job easier, we're better as a state when these conversations take place."
"I don't think that solves problems," he said.
Meanwhile, the Republican Governors Association was hosting its members throughout Friday at a Washington hotel as they shared intelligence and prepared themselves for the weekend and beyond.
Staff writer Aaron Blake contributed to this report.