President Obama travels to the Capitol today to meet with House and Senate Republicans, the latest in a series of high-profile efforts to reach across the aisle and make good on his campaign promise to swim against the partisan tide that has flooded Washington for decades.
So far, his gestures have shown few signs of success, as Republicans have continued to snipe at his signature initiative -- legislation to stimulate the economy -- and even to question the sincerity of his efforts. In the stimulus bill’s first two tests last week, it passed two committees without a single Republican vote.
But whether or not he picks up support from Republican lawmakers, Obama has already accomplished one important aim: He is winning over more Republican voters than he did on election day. If that continues, the president’s hand could get stronger on Capitol Hill.
“You don’t calculate the impact of his effort in terms of the number of votes he gets on the stimulus bill,” said Bill McInturff, a GOP pollster who worked for Obama’s campaign rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “You calculate it based on how he is perceived by Republicans around the country, and it looks to be substantially more positive.”
Still, it will be a blow to Obama if he ends up as Bill Clinton did in 1993, when the president’s cornerstone economic initiative, which included a politically risky tax increase, passed without Republican support. If that happens to Obama, it could be a bad omen for his efforts to build bipartisan coalitions on even more divisive issues, such as healthcare and energy legislation.
“The stimulus bill is going to lay the predicate for future cooperation,” said former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), who is now a lobbyist. “If this policy is dictated on a party-line vote, it’s hard to imagine that anything else will be bipartisan.”
For Republicans, the economic debate is the first test of how they will play the weak political hand they were dealt by the 2008 elections. They have proven willing to oppose Obama’s stimulus plan so far, but some Republicans worry about the risk of confronting a popular president during an economic crisis, when their party’s power is lower than it has been in more than a decade.
Obama’s meeting on Capitol Hill today comes at the invitation of House and Senate Republicans, who said they were responding to his claim that he wants to hear their ideas. It will be the first time the new president has been to Capitol Hill since he was sworn in.
Obama has been working the Republican side of the aisle for weeks. He has made phone calls not just to GOP leaders but also to rank-and-file members, among them conservative Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and moderate Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine). He named a Republican, former Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois, to be secretary of Transportation.
Obama’s chief of staff, former Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), is a master of Capitol Hill politicking and was dispatched soon after the election to meet GOP leaders.
Emanuel is hosting two moderate Pennsylvania Republicans -- Reps. Charlie Dent and Jim Gerlach -- along with several other Republicans at a White House dinner tonight. Dent and Gerlach are members of the Tuesday Group, which includes several dozen moderate Republicans. Neither will be an easy sell on the stimulus plan. Dent said Monday that he would probably oppose the bill as it stands because he was not convinced the package was designed to spend money quickly enough to stimulate the economy. Gerlach appears to be leaning in the same direction.
In putting together his stimulus bill, Obama had an eye on winning Republican support when he included several business tax breaks.
“There are already provisions in this bill relating to net operating loss, tax cuts and other small-business tax cuts that are directly related to suggestions that Republicans have given the economic team, the president of the United States and other members of Congress,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a briefing Monday.
Obama initially asked that 40% of the bill’s price tag be allotted to tax cuts, a portion large enough that pleased many Republicans and angered some Democrats. But when the bill failed to win over many Republicans, Obama settled for allotting one-third of the package to tax cuts.
That is the template that Republicans most worry about: However willing Obama may be to compromise, his fellow Democrats in Congress will pull him to the left.
In addition, Obama has had to battle Democrats’ interest in loading the bill with provisions they sought in vain under Republican rule. An example emerged Monday, when Democratic sources said House leaders would seek to drop from the bill family-planning provisions opposed by Republicans.
“They feel strongly that this is not the right place” to fight the family-planning battle, a senior House Democratic strategist said of the Obama camp. “But they are still committed and want to do it, just not in the stimulus.”
In a way, this amounts to an effort to call Republicans’ bluff: The GOP criticizes one aspect of the bill, the Democrats respond, then they wait to see whether Republicans will sign on.
Some Republicans believe the White House efforts so far amount to empty stagecraft, noting that GOP efforts to reduce the price tag of the bill and give more weight to tax cuts have been thwarted in the House.
“So far, it’s been a pretty partisan exercise, and we’re waiting for the bipartisan part,” said Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
A House Republican aide said that at Obama’s meeting with congressional Republicans at the White House on Friday, there was no real negotiation: Each side presented its case, but there was no give-and-take that might have resulted in more Republicans agreeing to support the bill.
One measure of the stimulus bill’s prospects will come today, as the Senate appropriations and finance committees meet to draft the spending and tax provisions. It is unclear whether the results will live up to Obama’s call for bipartisanship.
“It’s all optics until we see actions,” said Kyle Downey, a spokesman for Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.).
But outside Capitol Hill, Republicans seem to like what they have seen. In a Gallup Poll over the first four days of Obama’s presidency, 43% of Republicans approved of the job he was doing. Overall, 68% of those surveyed -- including Democrats, Republicans and independents -- approved of Obama. That is the highest initial job approval rating for any president since Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Josh Drobnyk of the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call contributed to this report.