The Washington Post

Obama to host governors at White House

President Obama makes a toast before the 2014 Governors’ Dinner in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Feb. 23, 2014. (Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS)

President Obama will host the nation’s governors Monday morning at the White House with all signs pointing to Republicans and Democrats talking past each other as they lay the groundwork for this year’s midterm elections.

Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) set the tone for the meeting during an interview with Washington Post reporters Sunday afternoon. “The president’s going to try to lecture us [Monday] on the same themes he’s been campaigning on across the country, and our response is that his policies are actually making that division worse.”

Jindal, noting that Obama has said he is determined to use his executive powers more freely, said he would urge the president to use his authority to speed energy production on federal lands, approve the Keystone pipeline and support additional delays in the health-care law’s mandates — all key Republican proposals that are not likely to find favor with the president.

White House officials sent out an e-mail Sunday afternoon outlining actions Obama plans to take this week on manufacturing and infrastructure. The message said Obama planned to use the meeting with the governors to “enlist them to make real progress on issues that matter to Americans.”

The president explicitly criticized Republican governors during remarks at a Democratic Governors Association fundraiser Thursday. “They’re pursuing the same top-down, failed economic policies that don’t help Americans get ahead,” he said.

After meeting with President Obama Friday, Democratic governors speak to reporters about the conversation and initiatives in their states. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

After hearing Obama’s comments, Republican governors and their advisers worried that Obama would use Monday’s meeting to put them on the defensive and vowed that they would push back.

If history is any guide, the conversation at the White House will be polite and civil, but Jindal will publish a more-extended list of GOP ideas for the president to pursue through executive action in a National Review article. Republican leaders planned a news conference to follow up on their points.

Republican and Democratic governors are expected to offer a united front at the White House on several issues of common concern. One is a fear of cuts in National Guard forces that they say would badly damage their capacity to respond to natural disasters and other problems at home.

Although the health-care law divides the two parties, Democratic governors said they are in agreement with their Republican counterparts in urging the administration to find ways to streamline the process for approving waivers that would give the states more flexibility to manage the Medicaid program.

Democrats see the minimum wage as a potentially potent election-year issue, one that polls well with the American people but which most Republican elected officials oppose. Gov. Pat Quinn (D-Ill.) said the president believes that “it is very important to deal with economic issues that affect working people, and that starts with the minimum wage.”

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, who chairs the Democratic Governors Association, said opponents “are not job-creating governors who are fighting for the middle class at a time when the middle class is getting kicked in the teeth.”

Gov. Bill Haslam (R-Tenn.) said raising the minimum wage would do little to accomplish Obama’s stated goal of reducing income inequality. “I think the question would be — is the minimum wage going to be worth the exposure to lost jobs?” he said in an interview, referring to a Congressional Budget Office report that said raising the minimum wage might lift 900,000 people out of poverty but could cost 500,000 jobs.

“Is that what’s going to address income inequality in any big way?” Haslam asked. “It’d be hard to have the numbers say that.”

The GOP’s hope is that by countering with an agenda of their own, the governors can leave Washington having prevented the Democrats from dominating the final day of the weekend’s winter meeting of the National Governors Association.

Both sides are focused on the same problem — the economy’s slow growth — with similar rhetoric on jobs and opportunity. But interviews with governors from both parties underscored the gap that exists in the agendas they will be pursuing. Jindal said Obama’s focus on the minimum wage suggests that he is “president of a minimum-wage economy. . . . Why is the new normal that we’re happy with a 2 to 3 percent recovery rate?”

The Democrats’ rejoinder is that, in practice, Republican policies continue to protect what Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley called the “malefactors of concentrated wealth” with big tax cuts as opposed to policies that address the needs of working families.

Most sessions between the nation’s governors and presidents have been relatively cordial and low-key. One exception came in 1992, when several Democratic governors, led by Roy Romer, then the governor of Colorado, challenged President George H.W. Bush over his economic policies in a dramatic standoff that prompted White House officials to cut the audio feed to the loudspeakers in the room.

Philip Rucker and Robert Costa contributed to this report.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.

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