The Rose Garden: Outreach Continues, Even Amid Tougher Tones

Posted March 13, 2009 at 6:33pm

The Era of Outreach is not over, say White House officials. But perhaps it is now sharing space with an Era of Mixed Feelings.

[IMGCAP(1)]President Barack Obama began the Era of Outreach well before he took office, speaking with Republicans by phone and meeting with their leaders.

After the swearing-in he gabbed freely with the entire Senate Republican Conference. A session with the House GOP followed soon after.

Since the stimulus passed with a total of three Republican Senate votes and none in the House, outreach has diminished some, but it stays on the front burner, Obama aides insisted.

Obama hasn’t held GOP-only meetings in recent weeks, but he’s going to start again, beginning with a group of Republican lawmakers who will head to the White House this week, according to one White House official, who declined to give details.

His early sessions with Republicans were part of an introduction process that ended, officials noted. And there was also an enormously pressing issue before Congress — the stimulus — for which Obama wanted GOP votes.

Aides recalled that Obama quietly invited the chairmen and ranking members of Congressional committees — and their wives — to a dinner at the White House last week, receiving grateful comments from Republicans who could not remember such solicitous White House treatment.

Republicans have been asked to attend recent executive order signings and White House confabs on health care and proper budgeting, where they were invited to voice their views.

Even so, the president has clearly started to focus his time on getting his own fractious caucus behind him.

He has convened separate White House meetings in the past few weeks with the Blue Dogs, the New Democrats, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Democrats on the House Budget Committee and those on the Senate budget panel — not to mention a session or two with the Democratic leadership.

And the rhetoric and recriminations emanating from both the White House and the Republican corner of Capitol Hill are ratcheting up.

But both sides say they still could always use a hug from the other, that they still hope to hear once again the sweet hymning of kumbaya that wafted up and down Pennsylvania Avenue all through January. But the noises are beginning to sound more vitriolic, and GOP aides complain of a partisan budget that bears little of their imprint.

Republicans say they are sitting by the phone waiting for the call summoning them for their ideas. Obama is tartly wondering aloud whether they have any.

“I’m not impressed by just being able to say no,— a frustrated Obama said last week of Republicans. “I think what will be interesting is the degree to which my Republican colleagues start putting forward in the form of an affirmative agenda that’s not based on ideology, but on the very real struggles and pain that people are feeling right now around the country, and how do we get this economy back on its feet.—

But Republicans feel they were burned last time around, charging that Obama listened to their concerns and then handed the stimulus to the Democratic leadership for partisan business as usual.

“The president invited our solutions back during the stimulus debate,— House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said. A clearly peeved Boehner said he and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) went to the White House to present ideas to the president, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and “all those who are at the White House suggesting that we’re the party of no.’— Obama, he charged, “frankly made very encouraging comments about our proposal, and yet all of those ideas were ignored when the stimulus bill was put together.—

One senior Senate Republican aide, who clearly hopes the Era of Outreach will resume, said Obama should have brought in a bipartisan group of Senators to craft the stimulus instead of handing it off to the Democratic leadership, where Republicans feel they have few friends.

“He said all the right things, but then the bill was drafted just like it’s always drafted,— he said.

White House officials say there was much in the bill for Republicans to like, and they have suggested repeatedly that the opposition to the bill shows the GOP is mired in the “ways of Washington.— And Democratic leaders deny that they wrote the bill without GOP input.

GOP aides say they appreciate Obama’s recent invites to public gatherings, but they note that sessions staged amid TV cameras are not where the business of Washington gets done.

Republicans are taking dead aim at Obama’s budget.

“I’m not going to and most of my Members are not going to support policies that we think turn us into France,— Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Friday. “We’re looking for opportunities to cooperate with the president, but it is really up to him. If he governs in the middle, he’ll find widespread American support. If he goes far left, there won’t be much Republican support.—

Obama aides make no apology for their priorities, saying initiatives in the pipeline on energy, health care and education are indispensible to a profitable future.

They deny that Obama has shelved the outreach and say his continued efforts prove it.

“The president remains optimistic that there will be bipartisan cooperation,— White House spokesman Joshua Earnest said. “He believes that given the challenges we face, we can’t get sidetracked by partisan politics.—

And Republicans acknowledge that staff-level contacts remain fairly robust, with Obama advisers still being glimpsed in GOP offices and calling up to chat.

“Rahm Emanuel’s a prolific phone-caller,— a Senate Republican leadership aide said.