Obama Quietly Cultivates GOP Relationships

Outreach Continues Even as Republicans Buck President’s Agenda, Call for More Bipartisanship

Posted April 24, 2009 at 6:13pm

Even as House GOP leaders criticize the Obama administration for a lack of bipartisanship, some consensus-building is actually under way between key White House officials and a small group of Republican Members.

Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the top Republican on the House Budget Committee, said he frequently exchanges phone calls with Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag to discuss economic issues.

Ryan said he talks to other members of the White House team as well.

“They usually call us — with Orszag, it’s notification, a heads-up or usually just courtesy calls. There’s a lot of [budgetary] things going on,— he said.

Ryan said the early GOP outreach is typical of most administrations. But as the workload increases, he said the charm offensive naturally drops off.

Not so, said Norman Ornstein, American Enterprise Institute resident scholar and Roll Call contributing writer. Ornstein said Obama’s outreach to Congress has been unusually high compared to his predecessors.

He noted that while Reagan and President George H.W. Bush reached out to Democratic Members, the Democrats were in control of Congress at the time.

“It had a lot to do with where the power was,— Ornstein said.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, “The outreach goes beyond just the process of crafting legislation. It’s good for the country.—

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), a moderate who also frequently talks to the White House on issues related to the auto industry, also compared Obama’s approach to that of Reagan’s.

“President Reagan had a great relationship with several Democrats,— Upton said, listing former Democratic Speakers Tip O’Neill (Mass.) and Jim Wright (Texas) as examples. “I think [Obama] is trying to follow that same model.—

Upton said Obama’s regular Wednesday night White House events, his Super Bowl party and bill signings have done a lot to build relationships with Republican Members.

“He’s getting to know people, which is pretty good after 100 days,— Upton said.

Both Upton and Ryan cited Emanuel, who left his seat in Congress to join the administration, as critical to the GOP outreach effort.

A White House aide said Emanuel has kept his ties to the House close.

“He still has many friends in the House, on both sides of the aisle,— the aide said. “He reaches out to his friends and former colleagues, but also Members of both parties who he knows have an interest in a particular issue or piece of legislation.—

Ornstein said Obama’s frequent bipartisan cocktail parties, the most recent held April 23, are also unique to this administration.

“The regular social events and his inclusion of many who might not vote with him [fosters] a general sense of camaraderie,— Ornstein said, adding that a Member would be more likely to consider an urgent request from the president of an opposing party if they know him personally.

So far in the 111th Congress, Obama’s outreach to House Republicans has been somewhat of a thankless task. After all, the last time he visited the Capitol to ask for their votes was on the $787 billion economic stimulus package, which every Republican House Member opposed.

Following the visit, some Republicans doubted that Obama would make the outreach a regular occurrence.

“I think when the president visited the Republican Conference he made a number of friends and his stock went up,— Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said. “I worry that some partisans in the White House would say, Mr. President, you went up there and they voted against you the next day.’ And that is a misleading [account] of what happened. We knew that the legislation that was finished was written by the Speaker and not the president.—

Kirk pointed out that the administration’s outreach to the House might not be as important as it is to the Senate, given that Obama can easily pass bills without a single House Republican vote.

Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) said that while he has not received a call from the White House since the February stimulus vote, he was confident Obama would reach out to the Conference again.

“I believe President Obama is sincere [regarding bipartisan outreach]. It just has not necessarily happened yet,— Castle said. “Health care is so complicated, global warming is so complicated. I would hope— Obama would reach out to Republicans.