Senate Republicans emerging from a private meeting with President Barack Obama on Tuesday painted a picture of an insulated chief executive out of touch with the American people and oblivious to the political realities of Capitol Hill.
Republican leaders said they were pleased that the president requested the meeting and hope that he makes such gatherings more of a habit. But interviews with rank-and-file GOP Senators made clear the meeting was tense, yielding no progress on major issues or even a general warming of relations.
“He wants to do immigration, climate change — all before we go home. He’s a very ambitious guy,” Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) said. “He’s got to step back and see what the country is ready for. That’s the problem.”
“I think it was significant that the president came to see us. It’s been infrequent,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) added. “It’s clear that he is relying on other people for the information and the positions that are being taken with regard to legislation on the floor, and I would say it appeared to be he was somewhat insulated from what actually is going on.”
Senate Republicans said prior to the meeting that they were most interested in hearing Obama’s plans for job creation and deficit reduction. But the president focused on immigration reform, climate change and his desire to move legislation before the midterm elections. Obama also discussed foreign policy, the Gulf oil spill and aiding small businesses.
Obama took about a dozen questions from Senators following his opening remarks, and that’s when the session turned confrontational, albeit respectful.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) asked the president to support a bipartisan Iran sanctions bill that his administration has so far resisted; Sen. John Barrasso (Wyo.) raised Obama’s health care law as an example of White House policies exacerbating the federal deficit and the national debt; and Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) complained to Obama that he has been insufficiently bipartisan. Corker called the exchange “testy.”
[IMGCAP(1)]”I said, I have to tell you, there’s a degree of audacity in you being here today,” Corker said. “You’ve passed three major bills, all of which were almost down party lines.”
Corker said he singled out financial regulatory reform as a prime example of a lost opportunity for bipartisanship.
“You talk about bipartisanship — I’ve seen the extremes that y’all will go to, to ensure that that’s not the case,” Corker said he told the president. “I want you to explain to us, when you get up in the morning, when you come over to a luncheon like this — where I feel we’re mostly here as props — explain to us how you reconcile that duplicity?”
Corker declined to say how Obama responded.
Sen. David Vitter (La.) pushed the president for a stronger administration response to the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in a back-and-forth described as somewhat heated. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), whom Obama beat to win the presidency in 2008, both brought up illegal immigration and Arizona’s controversial new law making unauthorized border crossings a state offense.
“I mentioned that the Arizona law had been mischaracterized by members of his administration,” said McCain, who explained his “polite exchange” with Obama this way: “He said that he thinks we need comprehensive immigration reform, da-da, da-da, da-da. I explained to him that we would not get comprehensive immigration reform until we had the border secure.”
Perhaps underscoring the divide between the two sides, Obama did not mention to Republicans during the meeting that his administration had decided to send 1,200 National Guard troops to the Mexican border to beef up enforcement — a move they support. The announcement was made within an hour after the president’s meeting with the Republicans ended.
Lack of Understanding
One GOP source said Republicans hardly expect Obama to agree with them but complained that Obama appeared to lack a complete understanding of where GOP Senators are coming from — politically and philosophically, moderates and conservatives alike.
The source noted that Obama told the group “he inherited a structural debt that was in no way related to his legislative agenda,” a message sure to get cold reception with that particular audience.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a prepared statement that Obama had a “civil” discussion and that he asked Senate Republicans to work with him on comprehensive immigration reform and energy legislation.
“He asked for their cooperation in finishing work on measures to help create jobs and improve our economy, including one to help make loans available to small businesses; in ratifying the START treaty that is central to our long-term security and efforts at nuclear non-proliferation; and in confirming Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court in a timely manner, so she can take her seat when the court reconvenes after summer,” Gibbs said.
“Obviously, there were continued differences on some of these issues” Gibbs continued. “But, the President believes that direct dialogue is better than posturing, and he was pleased to have the opportunity to share views with the Conference.”
Senate Republican Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) indicated that his party is interested in more outreach from Obama if it is to cooperate on his major legislative initiatives.
“It’s always good to have the president come up and speak to our Conference,” Thune said. “But I think what’s really important is not so much the symbolism of bipartisanship as it is the action of bipartisanship. … What we haven’t seen is a matchup of the rhetoric and the actions to follow through.”