Obama Begins to Reach Out

Posted January 5, 2009 at 6:55pm

Wedding bells weren’t ringing, but talk of a honeymoon pervaded the Capitol on Monday.

President-elect Barack Obama formally reached out to Republicans — both for the cameras and behind closed doors — in a charm offensive that sought to defuse opposition to a massive stimulus bill and set the stage for a productive new Congress.

After the bipartisan, bicameral meetings at the Capitol two weeks before his inauguration, Republicans were uncharacteristically singing his praises and hoping he can deliver on his promises of transparency and openness.

“We’re anxious to see it, and we’re anxious to work with our new president,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said of Obama’s stimulus plan, although he cautioned that Obama did not discuss the specifics of a package.

Obama said he came to the Capitol both to set the stage for a new way of doing business in Washington and also to ensure speedy passage of the economic recovery bill.

“Obviously, the inauguration stage is being built in the background, but the reason we’re here today is the people’s business can’t wait,” Obama told reporters before a meeting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Obama later focused on the need for changing how Washington does business.

“It’s not going to be sufficient for us just to fall back into the old Washington ways and simply throw money at the problem. We need to demand vigorous oversight. We need to have strict accountability in terms of how the recovery and reinvestment plan operates.”

At the bicameral meeting, Boehner told Obama that public dissatisfaction with last fall’s $700 billion financial sector bailout —and the way it was rammed through — demands more transparency and accountability now, according to a Republican aide, who said Obama agreed with Boehner.

Boehner and other Republicans also have reacted warmly to reports of Obama pursuing a $300 billion package of tax cuts, although they are cautious about the overall plan.

“I remain concerned about wasteful spending that might be attached to the tax relief,” Boehner said.

Obama told Republicans he would listen to their ideas — something the GOP hopes isn’t just happy talk. “The monopoly on good ideas does not belong to a single party,” he told lawmakers, according to a GOP aide. “If it’s a good idea, we will consider it.”

Republicans also were pleased that Democrats agreed to hold hearings on the stimulus proposal instead of just pushing it through on the House floor.

But Obama did not get deep into the details of his proposal Monday, saving the inevitable battles for later.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Obama wants a strong bipartisan vote and he takes him at his word that he wants to work with Republicans. If the final package includes tax relief provisions that aim to “starve the government … and allow the private sector to thrive, I think there will be a lot of support” among Republicans, Cantor said.

As Obama solicited ideas on the stimulus package, Democratic aides have been meeting with their Obama transition counterparts on the details. But sources on both sides of the aisle said aspects of the proposal — particularly on the tax cut side — were mainly drawn up by Team Obama. One top Republican aide said GOP officials had no substantive meetings with Obama advisers on the stimulus package before Monday.

Democratic leaders are only now getting some of the details and are just starting to share them with the Caucus. It is unclear how much enthusiasm there will be in the Democratic rank and file for Bush-style tax-cutting stimulus measures. Democratic aides and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) emphasized that the proposal was not yet finished.

Jennifer Bendery contributed to this report.