By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2011; 8:38 PM
The national focus on budget and labor battles in the states moves to Washington this weekend, with the National Governors Association facing what could be one of its most partisan periods in more than a decade.
Sharply drawn lines in Washington over the federal budget, along with broad Republican opposition among governors to President Obama's health-care law and other federal policies and regulations, threaten to color the meetings of an organization that generally attempts to seek consensus and eschews partisanship.
Even before the skirmishes erupted in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states over budget cuts and union bargaining rights, Obama was more at odds with GOP governors on Washington's role than most recent presidents.
A week ago, Obama called legislation proposed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) that would sharply curtail collective bargain rights "an assault" on unions. At the same time, reports that his political operation, Organizing for America, was helping promote the massive protests in Madison added to Republican ire aimed at the White House.
"There is no doubt that Republican governors have stepped up their activity both against the Democrats in Washington and what OFA and [Democratic National Committee] and labor unions have done to get involved in these battles," said Mike Schrimpf, the Republican Governors Association spokesman. "While in the past there were policy disagreements, the president was never deploying his resources into the states."
White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer took issue with the charge that the administration and its political allies were meddling in state business, saying the White House and DNC have had "very limited interaction" with the protests in Madison.
"This is primarily a talking point people are using to distract from what's going on on the ground," he said. "We will correct it when it's made and move on."
Obama will host the governors Sunday night for a black-tie dinner and will meet with them Monday for a session that is likely to include some direct give-and-take about some of the policies the Republicans most dislike.
But before the NGA meeting started, the president met privately with Democratic governors.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said the discussion did not touch on Wisconsin. "We were focused today on the things we can do together to create jobs," he told reporters outside the White House, adding: "We didn't talk about whatever it is they're doing in Wisconsin."
But the Democratic governors did not refrain from criticizing Walker for seeking to sharply curtail collective bargaining rights for unions.
"When you're facing tough challenges . . . I think it's best to bring people together to do that," O'Malley said at a session hosted by Politico Friday morning. "When you try to vilify, make one side of the equation the enemy, I think you're asking for trouble."
That prompted a retort from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, RGA chairman, who said Walker and a Republican legislative majority were elected by Wisconsin voters in November and had the power to govern.
"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," Perry said. "The key is, you believe what you believe in. We had elections."
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D), who has had a spat with Walker over taxes and whose state is reportedly where Democratic members of the Wisconsin state Senate are hiding out, called Walker's approach "combative" and said, "I don't think that solves problems."
With 29 new governors elected in November, the NGA faces the most significant turnover in years. NGA officials have scheduled four governors-only meetings to give the state executives more time to get to know one another out of sight of cameras and the demands to project partisan talking points.
But it's likely that partisan divisions will spill out throughout the weekend. Normally, governors would use the meeting to try to develop consensus on some of the state-federal issues they share, and they still may. But one official, who declined to be identified in order to speak candidly about the meeting, said: "What's going on now is much more ideological with the health-care thing happening out there and the union thing. This is big-time politics on the edges."
Staff writer Aaron Blake contributed to this report.