President Obama paid a rare visit Tuesday to Senate Republicans on Capitol Hill, seeking their support on energy, immigration and other top-priority measures. But he hit a buzz saw of criticism and resentment that bodes poorly for the remainder of his legislative agenda.
In the tense closed-door meeting, Obama told Senate Republicans he did not want legislative business to grind to a halt just because an election was approaching, and asked for their cooperation on ratifying the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, confirming Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court and passing legislation to improve the economy.
But at least one angry Republican accused Obama of treating members of the opposition like political props, saying the president’s bipartisan words have repeatedly been followed by partisan deeds on such issues as regulation of Wall Street, healthcare and economic stimulus.
“I told him I thought there was a degree of audacity in him showing up today,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who accused the administration of sabotaging efforts to write a bipartisan Wall Street bill. “I asked him how he was able to reconcile that duplicity.”
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said Obama’s response to the GOP criticism showed he was so “thin-skinned” that he should “take a Valium” before he comes to talk to Republicans again.
As Obama left the Capitol, he told reporters, “It was a good and frank exchange.” Later, White House spokesman Bill Burton said the session was “civil in tone" and that Republican accounts of the meeting were overblown.
But the byplay underscored the depth of the suspicions that Obama faces even as he presses for legislation on which he dearly needs Republican support — a bill now before the Senate to provide more funding for the war in Afghanistan. The war is opposed by many liberals and, especially in the House, war spending will be almost impossible to pass without Republican votes.
Democratic leaders also are preparing for action on a $200-billion bill to promote job creation that will stall in the Senate unless it draws at least a modicum of Republican backing.
House leaders are hoping to bring that bill to the floor this week, but action has been delayed because of opposition from centrist and business-oriented Democrats who object to the deficit spending and to provisions that would partially offset the cost by raising new taxes on certain investment income.
Obama’s trip to Capitol Hill came just days after the Senate handed him a big victory by approving the sweeping Wall Street bill. Although the goals of the bill had broad bipartisan support, it passed with votes from only four Republicans.
Many lawmakers think that may be the last major piece of legislation that can make it through Congress this election year, as hopes for ambitious energy and immigration legislation fade.
Although Obama’s visit was initially seen as a last-ditch effort to drum up Republican support for those initiatives, many thought that hopes of a breakthrough were unrealistic.
“Surely you didn’t think we were going to walk out of there and have some specific agreement on one of these issues,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Even moderate GOP Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, one of the few Republicans who has been willing to work with the administration, emerged from the meeting with Obama with a sour attitude toward his administration’s record of outreach to Republicans like herself.
“Their bipartisanship generally consists of ‘Can we have your vote for our bill,’ ” said Snowe, one of the few Republicans to support Obama’s economic stimulus bill last year.
Corker blew his stack at Obama’s plea for GOP support because he believes that, in spite of a lot of work between the parties on the Wall Street legislation over the last year, the administration sabotaged the effort and the result was a bill that was approved with little GOP support.
Others bridled at Obama’s tenor, which they described as combative and didactic.
“The back and forth was very tense throughout the meeting,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said. “I felt the president was very combative, and I was surprised since he requested the meeting.”
At least three times, Wicker said, Obama interrupted a questioner.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who backed out of earlier talks to reach a compromise on an immigration overhaul, said he tried to acknowledge Obama’s efforts to breach party divisions on those issues. But his plan to provide an avenue to legalize millions of illegal immigrants was a nonstarter in the Senate, where it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster, Graham said.
“It was at times testy,” Graham said of the meeting.
Obama’s 2008 presidential rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), confronted the president and his allies, saying they misrepresented the immigration law passed in his home state as an invitation to discrimination.
“I pointed out that members of his administration who have not read the law have mischaracterized the law — a very egregious act on their part,” McCain said afterward.
Other Republicans said they were more surprised that Obama made the trip than that nothing came of it.
“We simply have a large difference of opinion, which [will] not likely … be settled until November,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).
Lisa Mascaro, Richard Simon and Peter Nicholas in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.