GOP Senators Holding Back

Deal-Making Is Unlikely

Posted April 13, 2010 at 6:46pm

Though both parties have been vocal about wanting more bipartisanship in the Senate, Republicans are more reluctant than ever to stick their necks out on any major legislation given their deep mistrust of Democrats and the potential backlash from their own base for cooperating with the opposition.

“Going rogue is not en vogue,” acknowledged one Senate GOP aide. “The view is that [President Barack] Obama’s agenda is pretty radical. So in cutting a deal with [Democrats], you’re still going to look like you’re signing onto the Obama radical left agenda.”

Indeed, Republicans appear to believe that no matter where they turn, they could get rapped for playing too nicely with Democrats.

The anti-incumbent mood of the electorate has not insulated the minority party from electoral peril, largely because of a reinvigorated conservative movement that is demanding more and more purity from its elected leaders.

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), perhaps the most recognizable Republican Senator in America after his unsuccessful run for president in 2008, and Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) — a stalwart conservative and influential adviser to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — both face potentially difficult primaries. And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has taken heat back home for working with the Obama administration and Democrats on a number of issues, notably a climate change bill and immigration reform.

Making matters more tense among Republicans, McConnell has established an atmosphere in the Conference where
rogue bipartisan deals are discouraged — though not expressly forbidden — Senate GOP sources acknowledged.

Part of that stems from McConnell’s belief that Republicans have more leverage if they stick together, particularly now that they have just enough Senators to sustain a filibuster.

On Tuesday, McConnell’s public and private message to Republicans was to remain united in opposition during the upcoming financial regulatory reform fight.

“The only power we have to get significant items in bills is through our ability to stick together,” one senior Senate GOP aide said.

[IMGCAP(1)]But Republicans said leaders do not need to actively discourage them from working with Democrats. Besides the pitfalls of riling the GOP base or their leadership, they also have seen several of their colleagues enter into bipartisan legislative negotiations that came up empty.

Most point to the efforts of the gang of six health care negotiations, in which Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) negotiated for months with Democratic colleagues. After the three refused to agree to a final deal in the fall of 2009, Democrats largely cut Republicans out of their strategy for passage.

Notably, Snowe voted for the health care bill in the Finance Committee but was publicly stung when Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) decided to craft a bill that did not incorporate her proposal for a public insurance option. At the time, Reid described her as “frightened” of the public option, even though she proposed a public option that would be triggered if private insurers could not reduce health care costs on their own.

“I think that maybe there’s a reluctance on sitting down and working something out,” Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) said. “After seeing how Chuck and Mike Enzi and others tried to work with the Democrats on negotiating a health care bill — and were I think stiff-armed — there’s a tendency to feel that even if you sit down and try to work something out with them in the long run you’re not going to have the chance to get the compromise that you’d like to see.”

Voinovich said it happened to him, too, when he engaged Democrats on the 2009 economic stimulus bill.

“I tried to work on a compromise on the stimulus bill and the bottom line was that when push came to shove the deal had already been pretty much cut between the president and the House and the Senate,” he said. “I went and spent time with the [Democratic] leader and I just basically said … ‘You have no room to move because the deal’s all over with.'”

Grassley claimed he was bitten twice by Democrats in recent months, first on the health care bill and then in February after negotiating a bipartisan jobs bill with Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

Asked why so few Republicans have pursued bipartisan deals, Grassley said, “Because you get burned all the time you do it.” He added of the jobs bill, “Baucus and I put the bill out [and] two days later … some headline says Reid scuttles Baucus bill. So do they really want bipartisanship?”

Democrats have repeatedly said the lack of bipartisanship stems from a strategy devised by McConnell that is intended to delay or block all of the majority’s legislative efforts, both big and small. During the health care debate, Democrats noted that Republicans in the gang of six engaged in a sometimes circular negotiating strategy that led the majority to believe that they had no intention of reaching a deal. More recently, Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) told reporters that he has been in countless bipartisan negotiations in his 30-year career and can tell whether negotiations are really moving forward. He said he could tell that his talks with Republicans on financial regulatory reform were going nowhere before he decided to unveil his own bill last month.

Other GOP Senators who have worked with Democrats recently have had a hard time finding any other Republicans to give them cover.

Graham told Democrats working on immigration reform, including White House officials and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), that he would not sign on to legislation without a second Republican sponsor. One Senate Democratic source said Democrats approached Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) about the idea, but he rejected it, saying he would likely be helpful if the issue came to the floor but did not want to sponsor the bill. Lugar told CongressDaily in March that he was “sympathetic” but did not want to devote his time to an issue that was unlikely to reach the floor this year.

Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.) said he had been approached “in passing” on the issue, but he then repeated the GOP mantra that immigration reform should not be pursued until the administration has beefed up border security.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.) said he found little support from his fellow Republicans when he began negotiating a financial regulatory reform bill with Dodd. At the time, Republicans on the committee seemed skeptical of Corker’s efforts.

“Let’s see what the end results are,” ranking member Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said then. “I think we’re better off if we all hang together and work together, but the end goal is a good piece of legislation and any Senator can be a Senator first, I guess. … I try to work within the caucus, myself.”

Weeks later, Dodd cut off talks with Corker for, among other things, the Tennessee Republican’s inability to corral other GOP Senators.

Corker indicated Tuesday that his party’s failure to come to a deal on financial reform rested largely on committee Republicans’ unwillingness to do so, but he insisted that other Republicans would likely have jumped at the chance to support a bipartisan measure.

“Look, I’m the fifth seat [on the panel]. I’m not the senior member,” Corker said. “But there was never a question in my mind that if we reached a bipartisan agreement — forget committee — on the floor … I knew that 20 other Republicans would join in, minimally, and vote for a bill that was negotiated in a bipartisan way. … I still hope that we can get to a bipartisan agreement and I’m still working towards that end.”

Democrats largely agree that their Republican colleagues’ desire to join in bipartisan deals is palpable, even if most deals have yet to become reality.

“My own sense is that there is a number of Republicans who want to be part of the solution here,” Dodd said Tuesday. “They’re tired of this ‘Just say no.'”