Senate Republicans say they're ready to work across the aisle with Barack Obama, but it's not exactly a mission of mercy: Republicans senators hope to dodge charges of obstructionism — and they won't mind if they drive a wedge between Obama and congressional Democrats in the process.
"In our quest to do good policy, we're going to find a lot more areas of commonality with Obama than we are with House and Senate Democrats," said one senior Senate GOP aide. "When Obama and congressional Republicans do work together, the byproduct of that is in-fighting on the left."
If Obama and the GOP broker deals that split Democrats in Congress, it could create the same sort of disarray that contributed to the collapses of the GOP majority ahead of the 2006 midterm elections and the Democratic majority in 1994.
Intra-party tensions between the legislative and executive branches are nothing new, and already there are signs that Democrats are trying to avoid them. As Politico reported earlier this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has told soon-to-be Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel that she doesn't want the Obama White House to be striking side deals with the Blue Dogs or the New Democrats; on the Senate side, Harry Reid has made it clear that Joe Biden won't be coming to the Democrats' weekly policy lunches.
With the economy on the rocks and the nation engaged in two wars, Democrats say the country's problems are too serious to be dogged by the tensions of one-party rule. At the same time, they're skeptical that the GOP is actually interested in working IN a bipartisan way, pointing to the Senate Republicans' decision last week to block a bailout for the Big Three U.S. automakers.
"They gotta be careful," Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said of the Republicans. "If they wanted to pick something and make a point of it, don't turn your back on Christmas."
Of course, the Republicans face risks in compromising as well; they know they risk angering their base by brokering deals with Obama.
"I think everybody wants to work with him," Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), one of the most conservative Republicans in Congress, told Politico. "But when he's wrong, I'm going to work like heck to beat him."
The first test will be the massive economic stimulus package Obama wants to have waiting on his desk when he's sworn in on Jan. 20. The bill is expected to include a bundle of cash for infrastructure projects and state governments as well as middle-class tax relief and measures to stabilize the housing market.
But the Senate Democratic Caucus most likely won't be at full strength when the Senate convenes in January. The Minnesota Senate race could still be unresolved, and the scandal in Illinois means Obama's seat may still be empty. The result: Democrats could control just 55 seats when the Senate returns to work — five short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster in the Senate.
The shortfall would give Republicans some leverage to force congressional Democrats to compromise by dropping measures that have been long sought by the left. Obama, in turn, could push the congressional Democrats toward such a compromise in order to have big accomplishments to tout as soon as he takes the oath of office.
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a close adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), told Politico that it's possible that Congress can pass a stimulus package by Inauguration Day if Democrats "engage Republican members."
"I think the key is not the money so much as the policy — it's got to be a policy that has to produce substantive results, that performs the job creation in the country," Gregg said, citing policies to stabilize the mortgage crisis and saying Congress should avoid funding projects like the "Bridge to Nowhere," the infamous Alaska earmark that has become a symbol of government waste.
In addition to shining the light on anything that smells like pork, the Republicans will try to block measures Democrats have been pushing — including one that would allow bankruptcy judges to alter terms of mortgages for homeowners facing foreclosures. Senate Republicans could also try to slow the stimulus plan — and deny Obama a Jan. 20 triumph — by demanding public hearings on the Democrats' proposals before taking up any legislation.
The Blue Dog Democrats, who fight efforts to raise the federal deficit, could become the Senate GOP's ally when the economic stimulus bill hits the floor.
Beyond the stimulus loom other fights that could pit Democrats in the White House against Democrats in Congress — fights over government spending generally and spending on the Iraq war in particular.
Obama will have to decide whether to side with Democrats who want to reinstate an offshore drilling ban that Congress and the White House let expire last fall. He'll also have to decide whether to push for more nuclear energy, a thorny issue for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who is up for reelection in 2010 and has been a fierce opponent of storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.
"There will be times when Obama will try to use Republicans in order to push through his priorities," said Ron Bonjean, a political strategist who has served as a top aide to House and Senate GOP leaders.
Tom Ingram, staff director of the Senate Republican Conference, said creating a wedge is not a GOP strategy but that one could develop naturally as Obama tries to works with members of a Democratic majority who hold a diverse set of views.
If the Democratic majority devolves into an acrimonious round of finger-pointing, "that's their problem," he said.