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McConnell’s Relationship With Obama to Be Tested

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Regardless, a McConnell source said the Minority Leader took his Aug. 4 White House meeting seriously, asking the president to refrain from leaking the subjects they might discuss. That agreement was largely adhered to, except for an apparent White House leak in October to the New York Times, which reported the session was about judicial nominations and lasted more than 30 minutes before being interrupted by one of the president’s daughters.

The Times also insinuated that McConnell got that one-on-one meeting only after former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) relayed the need for such a get-together to his friend, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who is also a presidential confidant.

The McConnell source would not confirm that the meeting, held just days before the Senate voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, centered on judicial nominations or any other details. 

Regardless, McConnell appeared to be testing Obama’s trustworthiness in asking that staff not reveal the topics discussed.

There are a few glimmers of hope for the Obama-McConnell relationship. The president’s Nov. 5 call was not about the elections but about a trade agreement Obama was hoping to strike with South Korea on his trip to Asia. Though talks on the trade deal broke down last week, the McConnell source said the Kentuckian had been prepared to issue a press release supporting the president’s efforts.

But Alexander said Obama missed opportunities to strike deals with McConnell over the past two years, including on a stronger debt commission proposal this year.

Though McConnell decided to oppose it, Alexander suggested that McConnell might have been amenable to sharing with the president members of his party who were generally supportive of the proposal. In the end, several GOP Senators who had backed the commission voted against it, causing the amendment to fail.

Alexander noted that successful presidents have seen wisdom in reaching out earlier to Minority Leaders. President Lyndon B. Johnson, he noted, called Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) every day.

Alexander blamed the lack of a relationship between the president and McConnell on the Democrats’ overconfidence and the large Congressional majorities that followed Obama into office in 2008. Democrats “were so consumed by their big majorities ... that they ignored Republican points of view,” Alexander said.

Other Republicans said they are not sure where compromise will come from, given the White House has focused its GOP outreach on a handful of centrists and a few other rank-and-file Republican Senators.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said in a phone interview last week that the president “talked a lot ... about wanting to work with Republicans, but he didn’t offer any glimpse of how or where to do that.”

For example, Hatch blamed the White House for abandoning a bipartisan deal on the children’s health insurance law. He and Senate Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) had bucked GOP leaders and President George W. Bush by backing the deal in 2008, only to see the compromise get scrapped under a Democratic president the next year.

“We acted in total good faith ... and the first thing they did was totally ignore us,” Hatch said.

Still, Hatch said that if Obama “turns to the center, then there’s some hope.”

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