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Obama’s Aloof Behavior With GOP Could Hurt Agenda

President Barack Obama’s relationships with Congressional Republicans have withered in recent months, casting doubt on his ability to influence Congress during the election season next year as well as his ability to push an aggressive agenda if he wins a second term.

Though Republicans are in a good position to hold the levers of power in both chambers come 2013, several rank-and-file GOP Senators told Roll Call last week that Obama hasn’t called them at all this year — and several said his standoffish relations have hurt his agenda in a chamber that is pivotal to any White House legislative successes.

Obama did have all Senate Republicans up to the White House for a cattle call earlier this year, and he engaged in extensive discussions with Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) on this summer’s debt deal. But direct contacts between the president and lawmakers have slowed to a trickle as he gears up for re-election, Republicans said.

A senior Republican aide said Obama has had just three brief phone calls with Boehner since unveiling his jobs package — and there’s been no real effort to work with the Speaker.

McConnell said there was plenty of back-and-forth earlier this year to try to get a debt deal, but lately Democrats are just playing politics.

“I haven’t counted up the weeks, but we’ve had a show vote a week here for a seemingly endless period of time, none of which are designed to get an outcome,” he said.

As for negotiations with the White House? “Nothing serious yet,” he said.

Meanwhile, Republicans who have occasionally worked with Democrats, including some Obama has personally wooed in the past, say they haven’t heard from the president this year.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) had emerged last year as a potentially fertile lobbying target for the administration when she touted her independence after losing the GOP primary to tea party Republican Joe Miller, whom she subsequently defeated as a write-in candidate in the general election. But Murkowski said that after a call congratulating her victory, little of substance has come from her spare dealings.

Murkowski said she did get a call from White House Chief of Staff William Daley asking about her vote on the Commerce secretary nomination. She also visited the Oval Office in February, according to news reports.

“I, too, kind of assumed there would be greater outreach there. But this administration is not known for reaching out on the legislative side,” she said. “It’s not just my observation. I talk with colleagues on the other side of the aisle who had expected perhaps a little more reach out because of the fact that the president used to serve with us in the Senate and the vice president used to serve with us here in the Senate.”

Obama wooed Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) a lot early in his presidency, first to get her vote on the stimulus package and later seeking her vote for health care reform.

But he doesn’t call anymore, and his team hasn’t reached out much either, she said.

Snowe, who is up for re-election next year, said the Obama White House has the worst relationship with Congress of any of the six presidents with whom she’s served.

“It’s a dramatic difference. … I don’t expect the president every day to be calling me or somebody else. [But] I think what you do expect is to have a team that can work through the various issues … and build a consensus,” she said.

Snowe added, “I can understand him using the bully pulpit, you know, to enhance his position, but it can’t be to the exclusion of ever working with the legislative branch.”

The White House pushed back Friday against the criticism.

“The president and his administration are working tirelessly to create jobs and improve the economy and he welcomes Republican willingness to work with him to pass the American Jobs Act and extend and expand the payroll tax cut,” White House spokeswoman Jamie Smith said.

Senior White House officials also say the president and his administration regularly engage with Members. And some who criticized Obama’s lack of outreach have been to the White House this year, some of them multiple times.

The White House has repeatedly dismissed complaints, mostly from Republicans, about the president’s near total lack of involvement in the failed super committee deliberations, and it has defended the president’s weekly bashing of the GOP on their opposition to taxing millionaires to pay for job-creation legislation. Republicans shouldn’t be “let off the hook” for blocking the payroll tax cut paid for by taxes on millionaires, Press Secretary Jay Carney said last week.

And allies such as Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have blasted the GOP for walking out of negotiations with the White House three times earlier this year. Democrats generally say Republicans have no one but themselves to blame for getting the cold shoulder.

They point to McConnell’s statement that defeating Obama was his top priority, and Democrats believe that the tougher approach is bearing fruit as Republicans splintered on the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits last week.

Snowe said there’s blame to go around for this year’s gridlock, but Obama deserves his share.

“You have to keep working at it. You know, you don’t just give up,” she said. “There’s only one president.”

Like Snowe, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) recalled getting wooed last year when he was a crucial swing vote, but he doesn’t recall speaking to Obama this year — about the jobs bill or anything else.

“It hasn’t been like before, when he would call me from Air Force One. … It’s too bad because there are a lot of things that we actually agree on,” Brown said.

The Massachusetts Senator, who is the most endangered Republican in next year’s elections, got a handshake from the president two weeks ago at a signing ceremony on a veterans’ jobs bill that incorporated one of Brown’s bills. But the president didn’t pull him aside for a chat.

“I spoke to the vice president and told him that we’ve got to stop playing games. There’s a lot of things that we can work on together because our country is yearning for it,” Brown said.

Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) said after a press conference during which he blasted the administration’s delay of the Keystone XL pipeline that he hasn’t gotten a call “since the New START Treaty. But that was last year.” Lugar co-authored legislation with Obama before he was president and was seen as a mentor to Obama in the Senate.

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), a former governor and secretary of Agriculture in the George W. Bush administration, said there has been no push inside the Capitol for the jobs bill.

“I just never saw a serious effort by the White House to get this bill done. He’d go out and give a speech, ‘Pass this bill now,’ or whatever the catchphrase of the day was. But I never saw the White House work this jobs bill. And that’s one of the reasons why it doesn’t go anywhere,” Johanns said.

Johanns said he’s received two calls from the president since he’s taken office — once when he was recovering from surgery and once to thank him for his vote for the New START Treaty. “It’s not like I’m waiting for the phone to ring … [but] I’ve probably spent 120 seconds talking to him.”

Though Johanns has carved a reputation as a solid conservative, he recently joined the Senate’s “gang of six” for dinner in an attempt to find a bipartisan solution to the ballooning deficit.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has talked frequently in the past with the White House about immigration reform and climate change bills, said that in the past six months, interaction with the president has been “zero, zero.”

“I think they are in full campaign mode,” he said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said he could recall one good conversation with the president this year — when the president and Alexander flew to Memphis aboard Air Force One. The former Education secretary chatted with the president about reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind law.

Even Democrats see Obama’s disengagement. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said that times are very different than they were in 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson would regularly meet, call and drink with Republican leaders and Senators. Harkin said that the Republican Party has become a nearly monolithic bloc of conservatives, but he counseled that a personal touch could help the president.

“Personal relationships always are better than keeping a distance,” he said. “It’s my observation that President Obama, even when he was here and was on my committee and stuff, he’s a very intellectual, focused individual. It never seemed to me that he enjoyed the give and the take of the institution here.”

He added, “If I only dealt with my Republican colleagues only on an issue basis, I probably never would get anywhere. But I deal with them on a human basis, too.”

Alexander, who first came to the Senate as an aide in 1967 for former Sen. Howard Baker and later served as a liaison between the White House and Congress, said Obama’s relationships with Congress and with the opposing party in particular are a far cry from previous presidents.

Alexander, who recently announced he would step down from GOP leadership to better build bipartisanship, said that it has hurt Obama’s agenda.

But Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) dismissed the idea that more outreach from the White House — phone calls, visits and the like — would work, given today’s political environment.

“It doesn’t get any bills passed,” he said. “It wouldn’t be a very good use of his time.”

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