GOP Questions Outreach

Posted February 11, 2009 at 6:47pm

President Barack Obama has made robust efforts to communicate directly with Republican Members of Congress, but top GOP aides say his public outreach has so far been accompanied by little of the type of substantive staff-level interaction that generates legislation.

“Though the administration’s marketing of its bipartisan hard work has been outstanding, the actual work has been almost nonexistent,” said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

Other GOP leadership aides in both the House and Senate echoed that sentiment, some with obvious irritation. While Republican leaders and aides both publicly and privately applaud Obama’s personal diplomacy, there is widespread concern with the level of detailed engagement and a belief that the White House’s only serious discussions on the stimulus legislation now pending before Congress have been with Democrats and a few moderate GOP Senators.

“There have been some cursory conversations, but nothing beyond ‘Hi, how are you?’” a House GOP leadership aide said.

A top Senate GOP leadership aide said that in terms of “rolling up our sleeves” to do the work of legislating, there has been no such interaction between the White House and Republicans.

He described one early session at which Obama aides presented their ideas for the stimulus and then listened to Republican thoughts.

“They listened to the ideas,” he said. “They didn’t take the ideas.”

Another Senate leadership aide noted that the “social outreach” seems “even more than we got with Bush,” pointing to a session with Obama, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and National Economic Council Director Larry Summers.

But “to my knowledge, there has been no significant staff-to-staff outreach at the leadership level,” he said. “I don’t think it’s occurred at the committee level either.”

No Republicans supported the stimulus bill when it first passed the House and only three GOP moderates — Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — backed it in the Senate.

A White House official pointed to a staff-level meeting with the House Republican Conference and “a long list of House and Senate Republican offices” where input has been received. The official said there had been “numerous individual conversations and meetings” held by the president, Emanuel, Legislative Affairs Director Phil Schiliro and “other senior members of the president’s team.”

As Obama has noted, a suggestion by Cantor for increased transparency resulted in a provision establishing a new federal Web site that will track how stimulus money is spent. The White House official added that Specter, Snowe and Collins have all made their views part of the stimulus package.

But several GOP aides objected strongly to Obama’s criticism of Washington “behavior” on the part of Republicans that will take time to change — while, they charged, the White House was using the standard practice perfected by former President George W. Bush of trying to pick off enough moderates from the opposite party to get a bare majority.

“All that happened is they tweaked the House bill to get three Republicans so they could get the bill passed,” one senior Senate GOP aide said.

“It’s very Rovian in every sense of the word,” one House GOP leadership aide said in a reference to former Bush political guru Karl Rove. “It’s something the Democrats complained about for years.”

Some Republicans charge that either Obama has been superceded by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) — whom Republicans accuse of changing Obama’s stimulus ideas and crafting the legislation largely without GOP input — or he doesn’t understand that Republicans want to be more directly involved in crafting bills.

Democratic aides reject suggestions that the GOP was not sufficiently consulted about the legislation, saying Republican ideas are part of the bill and some provisions they objected to are out. The White House and Democrats argue that many of the remaining provisions Republicans don’t like make up a relatively miniscule portion of the bill. Republicans claim their ideas were included without their input and that some of it is window dressing.

“Republican ideas written by Democrats are as good as Democratic ideas written by Republicans,” one said.

Cantor on Wednesday alluded to GOP concerns about not being engaged on substance.

“My question is, ‘What is the majority trying to hide by never allowing any ventilation of ideas, any discussion of what we have brought forward as the Republican vision to stimulate this economy?’” Cantor said.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the GOP had been consulted. “I think many have said that they’ve seen and talked with the president more in this administration than they have in [the] previous administration,” Gibbs said.

Republicans who are convinced the stimulus bill was hijacked by the Congressional Democratic leadership say they cannot accurately assess whether Obama’s outreach will eventually become more substantive.

But others lament that the White House’s failure to dig into the weeds with Republicans to try to gin up support on the bill bodes ill for the future.

“This is the easy part,” said one Senate GOP leadership aide, who noted that contentious issues such as Medicare, health care and the next financial bailout package await.

“The stimulus is something everyone agreed needed to happen.”