Discussions between President Obama and the nation’s governors began on a hopeful bipartisan note Monday but quickly devolved into a nasty dispute between Republicans and Democrats once the politicians got in front of the microphones.
Obama and members of his Cabinet welcomed all but a handful of top state leaders, in town for a National Governors Association meeting, to a roughly hour-long joint news conference at the White House to discuss a variety of issues, including funding for the National Guard, health care, energy development and a possible increase in the minimum wage.
Praising them for their practicality, the president said members of his Cabinet and staff were eager to work with them.
“You want to do right by your people and you see how good policy impacts your citizens, and you see how bad policy impacts your citizens, and that means that there’s less room for posturing and politics, and more room for getting stuff done,” he said. “We won’t agree on every single issue every single time, but I guarantee you that we will work as hard as we can to make sure that you succeed — because when you succeed, the people in your states succeed and America succeeds, and that’s our goal.”
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R), who chairs the NGA, said after the meeting with the large group of governors that the two sides had engaged in “a very productive conversation” and exchanged ideas on issues such as infrastructure and Medicaid reform.
“People expect us to take action on those issues,” she said.
But members from both parties expressed concerns about the proposed budget cuts to the National Guard, and the governors sparred over economic and energy policy even as they said they talked about finding common ground.
On Monday afternoon, Obama and several senior administration officials, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, met with governors from eight Western states in the Situation Room to discuss the federal government’s approach to addressing wildfires in the face of climate change. Obama said he could call on Congress to fund wildfire suppression the way it pays for responses to natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) said he and others were concerned about reductions in funding because the National Guard plays such a crucial role in responding to emergencies in states. Given that the Army has experienced a disproportionate increase in its budget in the past decade, Branstad said, “that’s where we think the reductions should be” made.
Toward the end of the session, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) said the president “seems to be waving the white flag of surrender” and has abandoned all hope of producing a robust economy now that he is pushing for a minimum-wage increase.
“After more than five years under this administration, the Obama economy is now the minimum-wage economy,” he said. “I think we can do better than that. I think America can do better than that.”
Jindal said Obama should approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline “if he was serious about growing the economy.”
On Monday, TransCanada, which wants to build the pipeline, contended that the route across Nebraska approved by Gov. Dave Heineman (R) remains in effect despite a judge’s ruling last week that the 2012 state law that gave him that authority is unconstitutional. Plaintiffs in that case repeated their belief that the route had been invalidated.
Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D) then stepped up to the microphone: “You just heard what ended up being the most partisan statement that we’ve heard all weekend.
“I don’t know what the heck is a reference to a ‘white flag’ when it comes to people making $404 a week,” Malloy said. “That’s the most insane statement I’ve ever heard.”
Malloy pointed out that some governors don’t want Obama to issue a presidential permit for the massive pipeline project, saying, “Not all of us agree moving Canadian oil through the United States is necessarily the best thing for the United States economy.”
According to Fallin, who supports the pipeline, Obama said he “anticipates an answer one way or another in a couple of months.” However White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to specify when the State Department will issue a final decision, telling reporters, “I don’t have a timetable for you.”
In a separate news conference, members of the Republican Governors Association criticized the president for his tone and what they described as a lack of trust in state leaders to make decisions for their citizens. Democrats dismissed the criticisms as posturing.
The Republican governors criticized Obama’s response to a question about whether states should play a bigger role in accrediting colleges. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) said Obama responded by saying, “ ‘I can’t have a bunch of states go out there and accrediting schools and having all these bad schools out there.’ ”
The GOP leaders were quick to say that the overall discussion was conducted with civility and respect. But they said they were offended by the way Obama handled questions about possible cuts in the National Guard — an issue that is of concern to both Republican and Democratic governors.
“The tone completely changed when we started talking about the National Guard,” Haley said.
The GOP leaders said Obama told them that many of them had asked for spending reductions and were not in a position now to complain when the budget ax hit some programs they especially favored. “It chilled the room quite a bit,” Haley said.
Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (D) was in the room and when he was told what the Republican leaders had said, he responded by saying, “That is unbelievable hyperbole.” He said Obama “could not have been more clear” that he was prepared to work with the governors.
Still, even some of the most conservative governors said they thought that administration members listened to their concerns. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) said he was encouraged by a conversation he had with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell about whether the department will allow for seismic testing to determine how much oil and gas lies beneath the seafloor off the Southeast coast. Interior may issue a final environmental assessment this week on the tests’ impact on wildlife. McCrory described the chat as “positive progress.”
Dan Balz contributed to this report.