Senate Republicans were impressed with President Obama's early efforts to court them: the visits to the Hill, the invitations to the White House, the cocktail parties and lunches.
But despite the symbolism, the Administration did little else of substance to win them over on the contentious stimulus package, Republicans said on Friday. After the initial flurry of phone calls and meetings, there was little interaction with the GOP as the administration and Democratic leaders crafted the legislation and pushed it through both chambers of Congress.
“They were great on the gestures and the niceties at the outset,” said Sen. John Thune (R-SD), after the vote. “And we really appreciated the extra efforts. But the follow through just wasn’t there. Not in the slightest.
“In retrospect, it was superficial,” Thune continued. “They were just public pronouncements. Once they had what they needed, it was a limited exercise.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-SC) an outspoken critic of the legislation, agreed: “Coming to lunch and throwing cocktail parties is nice but it doesn’t solve a problem.”
One senior GOP Senate aide said his moderate-leaning boss received calls from Obama and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel more than two weeks ago, but that the phones went “dead silent” in recent days.
“They were really good at the outreach and it made a great initial impression on my boss,” the aide said. “My boss was at the table and willing to talk but they weren’t so good at the executing.”
Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) said he received calls from Vice President Joe Biden and economic adviser Larry Summers as Democrats began to draft a plan. In turn, Voinovich said he shared his ideas about how the bill could be improved and how he could be won over.
He told Biden and Summers he would support a package that would “specifically put people back to work” and “provide a safety net to struggling families who needed it the most.” Voinovich said he didn’t think spending roughly $300 billion was necessary and tried to winnow the number down.
“I told them about my ideas and my priorities but there was no follow through,” he said. “To my knowledge, I never heard back.”
In the end, the rush to push legislation through prevailed, said Voinovich.
“They just wanted to get this thing done,” he said. “[Obama] said he wanted to hear us but he had already done his deal with the Democrats,” adding that the administration is “going to face a real problem” if it doesn't do more to court Republicans on future bills.
“Some of us are moderates and we want to work with them,” Voinovich said. “We’ll all be watching to see how they approach us next time.”
“They’re going to have to offend a few Democrats in the future to get some of us on board,” he said.
Still, on Friday, some Republicans said they were grateful to Obama for extending a hand in the first place.
“I was actually really impressed that he came to talk to our conference,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “That’s unusual.”
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said the Obama Administration proved that they were “at the very least trying.”
“That kind of effort sets the table,” Isakson said. “They’re making an effort. It’s like anything else, everyone’s feeling their way around right now.”Having staked his presidency on the success of his economic plan and campaigned on changing Washington, Obama, who was handed a defeat on his push for bipartisanship, shifted focus to something else un-Washington: making government spending transparent.