It was the love affair that could never be, President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans.
The two sides came together en masse Tuesday for the first time since Obama took the oath of office. Despite the niceties, both sides walked away spurned.
In many ways, Obama told the assembled Republicans everything they would want to hear, according to people in the meetings.
He promised to make tough spending choices in his first budget blueprint — “everyone will have to take a haircut,” he said. He told them he wouldn’t increase the size of government just to increase the size of government. He even teased House Minority Leader John A. Boehner about his golf swing.
Likewise, Republicans left the meeting with kind words for the president — but still resolved to oppose him on the floor Wednesday when Democrats bring his massive economic stimulus plan up for a vote.
Beneath the polite give-and-take between the new president and the newly disempowered Republican caucus, there was a sense that Obama’s honeymoon had already begun to ebb. For the first time, it seems, congressional Republicans, shut out of power and seemingly cowed by the harsh verdict of voters and wild popularity of the new president, are finding their voice, rallying in large numbers against the centerpiece of Obama’s agenda.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) started the week swinging, declaring Sunday that he would oppose Obama’s stimulus package as written. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has kept up a daily din of opposition to specifics of the package, mocking the inclusion of a mob museum and a water park. Senate Republicans also are rallying against the Democratic version of a children’s health care bill being debated this week. And most Senate Republicans opposed the confirmation of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner Monday.
The nitpicking took its toll, and Obama on Monday privately urged House Democrats to remove a notable flash point: funds for contraception that had been defended by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on national television just a day before. The Democrats agreed.
Not all Republicans will say the honeymoon is over, but rather that it’s Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders who are doing their best to turn on the cold shower.
Loath to criticize a president who enjoys stratospheric approval ratings and the good tidings of most Americans, Republicans on the Hill are instead framing their overwhelming opposition to the stimulus bill as a vote against a congressional Democratic leadership that is far less popular than Obama.
“It’s not so much his effort, it’s what the House has done with this bill, what Pelosi has done with this bill,” explained Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), a veteran member of the Appropriations Committee.
Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), a young conservative firebrand, was more blunt when asked what happened to Obama’s honeymoon: “Ask Pelosi.”
Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), a senior appropriator, said that “several people” registered complaints to Obama that the GOP had not been consulted in the development of the bills now being marked up in the Finance and Appropriations committees.
The committees “were run without Republican participation, the Appropriations bill had things in my subcommittee part that we never saw or had anything to say about. We have been shut out.”
With most moderates having retired or been defeated, especially among House Republicans, there is little political danger in opposing nearly another trillion dollars in spending at a time when many conservative-leaning voters are weary of government intervention after months of bailouts.
In addition, Obama’s soothing tones Tuesday couldn’t mask his disagreement with Republicans on the need for more tax cuts in the package. That was the first question he took in his meeting on the House side — and Obama brushed it away with a polite, but firm, no thanks.
“Feel free to whack me over the head because I probably will not compromise on that part,” Obama said of Republican opposition to the Democrats’ refundable tax credits, according to two sources in the room.
Finger-pointing aside, that partisan reality gets at why the relationship is fraying: irreconcilable differences.
“It lasted about two days,” quipped Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), when asked if the honeymoon was over.
Why so soon?
Because, he said, conservatives are just “not receptive” to Obama’s agenda.
Yet even Inhofe, a true-believing conservative who represents a state in which Obama lost every county, is unwilling to take after his former colleague.
“He is very likable, he presented himself very well, and he seemed to want to be inclusive,” Inhofe said in a brief interview following Obama’s meeting. “But if the product is anything like we think it’s going to be, it’s not one that is going to be sellable to conservatives.”
Administration officials are hopeful that the goodwill and political capital Obama currently enjoys will win them at least some Republican votes on the bill, expected on the House floor Wednesday, and are launching an all-out lobbying blitz to pick them off.
In addition to the president’s mid-day visit, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel hosted a group of congressional Republicans at the White House Tuesday night.
Republicans were appreciative of the gesture — but noncommittal.
“I’m glad to listen,” said Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), a perennially targeted Philadelphia-area moderate who planned to attend Tuesday night's White House session and is on Obama’s GOP wish list.
Further, Politico has learned that some prominent Republican lobbyists are targeting about 40 of the remaining moderate or center-right House Republicans on the vote.
“If you can just get some intel on 4-5 of the members and report it back to me, I will try to aggregate the information and get it back to the [White House] and House [Democratic] leadership,” wrote Ralph Hellman in an e-mail Tuesday morning to fellow lobbyists, listing those House Republicans Obama considers in play. Hellman is lobbying in support of the stimulus package for technology companies, but Obama officials say he’s not working with the White House.
Hellman, a former top aide to former Speaker Dennis Hastert, noted in the message that the Republican target list consisted of those who recently voted with Democrats on extending the SCHIP program.Privately, White House aides are playing less nice, warning Republicans what is at stake.
“This is a very dangerous political vote for House Republicans, in particular those from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan,” said a West Wing aide familiar with House districts. “Their constituents want them to take action to save the economy, not block progress.”
But if the back and forth in Tuesday’s closed-door meeting is any indication, Obama and his K Street allies aren’t likely to fare well in the first vote.
Rep. Peter J. Roskam (R-Ill.), who served in the state Senate with Obama, told his former colleague that Democrats in the House have not observed the president’s campaign pledge to rise above party labels, complaining that there is more money for new sod on the National Mall than the $41 million for small-business tax cuts.
Obama responded that he’s just as concerned about the long-term budgetary impact of tax cuts as he is with increased spending, before joking — and getting laughs — that the National Mall is kind of important.
Roskam, in a jovial tone, teased Obama for “wrapping himself in the flag.”
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) won applause from his colleagues when he asked Obama to promise not to raise taxes in order to offset all this spending. The president replied that he has inherited a huge deficit and a debt that is now twice what it was last year. He did, however, point out whose party held the Oval Office while all that debt was mounting.
Michigan Rep. Dave Camp, the ranking Republican on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, quizzed Obama on tax cuts in the House meeting. Obama told the group he would be open to any new ideas that haven’t been discussed before laying out the philosophical difference between the two parties on the issue of tax rebates for lower-income households that don’t already pay income taxes.
He also acknowledged that there will be plenty of time for them to beat him up politically, according to the notes of one participant in the meeting. “I understand that,” Obama said, then joked, “and I will watch you on Fox News and feel bad about myself.”
Obama made some time-worn appeals to the Republicans huddled in the basement of the Capitol. He told them not to play politics with this legislation and warned them from fixating on small parts of the bill.
He also reiterated his willingness to work with them once the House and Senate start negotiations over a final package.
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) closed the meeting by arguing that Republicans had been left out of the drafting process and had minimal contact with Pelosi and other House Democrats.
But he told the president Republicans would pray for him and their door “would always be open.”
Similarly, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said: “The most encouraging statement I think the president made today was the fact that he had no pride of authorship in this bill. We take that to mean that tomorrow’s vote is only the first step in the process, only the beginning.”
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), one of the House Republicans on Obama’s target list, lavished praise on the president for coming to visit in an interview after the lunch. But she indicated she was still uncertain if she could reward his effort.
“Do we need a stimulus? I believe we do. But do we need to spend the amount that were spending? I’m not convinced of that.”
Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), asked if any of her colleagues were more inclined to support the stimulus measure after their back and forth with Obama, was more blunt: “I don’t think so.”
Of course, she didn’t want to place the blame at the president’s feet.
“It’s unfortunate that their leadership didn’t negotiate with us,” Biggert said. “The problem is that the process now is too far down the road.”
But, with a twinkle, she said, “he really cares about what he’s doing.”