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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell joked recently that Republican gains on Nov. 2 have finally put him on President Barack Obama’s “speed dial.”
But even though the president called the Kentucky Republican twice during the week of the election, their relationship still has a ways to go. And it’s likely to be tested as soon as Congress returns to work for the lame-duck session to deal with divisive issues such as taxes and spending.
“The lack of the most elemental relationship between the president and the Minority Leader plays out day after day after day,” Senate GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) said in a telephone interview last week.
Congressional Republicans have been scratching their heads for nearly two years on why Obama has not reached out to them more, particularly in the Senate, where the minority can stall crucial legislation.
“There’s a price to pay when you don’t develop that relationship. They need to know each other, and that takes getting together more than once every two years,” Alexander said.
Prior to the phone calls on the night of the elections and on Nov. 5, McConnell had met with Obama as president just once one-on-one — on Aug. 4, a year and a half after Obama took office. Before that meeting, Obama and McConnell had only spoken at larger White House meetings attended by Democrats. Previously, the pair’s last one-on-one conversation had occurred before Obama was inaugurated.
Neither man has sent public signals of wanting to build a closer bond. McConnell has repeatedly said he wants to make Obama a one-term president, while Obama called Republicans “enemies” shortly before the elections. Both men have backtracked from those comments, however.
In a Nov. 5 appearance on CNN, McConnell clarified, “It’s not particularly noteworthy that I would like to elect a Republican president in ’12, and he would like to have a second term in ’12. What is more important to the American people is what are we going to do between now and then. I think we can do some business.”
But since securing six more seats in the Senate and increasing his minority from 41 to 47 Senators, McConnell has made it clear he expects Obama and Congressional Democrats to “move in our direction,” which suggests he expects more give from the president than he does from his own ranks on legislative agreements.
White House spokesman Bill Burton said the president is optimistic about building a stronger relationship with McConnell despite the partisan nature of McConnell’s recent comments.
“The American people want both parties to work together,” Burton said. “Hopefully, that doesn’t get mired in Sen. McConnell’s belief that his No. 1 priority is to stop the president from getting re-elected.”
Burton added that Obama plans to continue inviting McConnell to the White House for both one-on-one and joint meetings with other Congressional leaders.