Another reach across the aisle

If Republicans think they're in cat bird's seat, they'll be less open to Obama's overtures

January 29, 2010|By Paul West | paul.west@baltsun.com

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama plans to extend a hand to his political antagonists at a House Republican retreat today in Baltimore.

But the exchange - part of his election-year attempt to generate more bipartisanship in Washington - is unlikely to alter Republican behavior, say strategists and former members of Congress from both parties.

" Republicans are emboldened. They think Obama has overshot the runway, and they're going to stick with their strategy," said Scott Reed, a Republican consultant.

As they left Washington for a three-day strategy session at an Inner Harbor hotel, Republican leaders did not appear to be in a compromising frame of mind.

Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the minority leader, said that Obama had "decided to just double-down on his job-killing agenda" and ignore the message of voter anger sent by recent Republican victories in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts.

"There was nothing ... in the president's [State of the Union] speech to indicate that there was any willingness to sit down and work together," Boehner said. Republicans would try to find common ground with Obama, he said, "but we're not going to roll over on our principles."

Heading into this year's congressional campaigns, Republican fundraising and recruitment have picked up, and national opinion surveys show steady improvement in the party's prospects. Independent analysts are predicting that Democrats could lose dozens of House seats and, possibly, majority control of the chamber in the first midterm election of Obama's presidency.

Obama acknowledged the effectiveness of the opposition strategy, even as he took a swipe this week at Republican obstructionism. "Just saying no to everything may be good politics, but it's not leadership," he said in his State of the Union speech Wednesday night.

For now, though, Republicans have little incentive to cooperate. Only three of the 37 most competitive House races in 2010 feature a Democratic challenge to a Republican incumbent, according to the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

The greatest electoral threat Republican officials face may not be from Democrats; instead, it's the potential for backlash from their party's most conservative wing, where anti-Obama sentiment is intense.

Maine's Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, "caught hell from the Republican base" after they voted for the Democratic stimulus plan last year, said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia.

For many years, heightened partisanship in Washington has made it more difficult for presidents of both parties to govern. Democrats and Republicans have made sporadic efforts to enlist cross-party cooperation, with limited success.

Early in his first term, Republican President George W. Bush reached out to Democrats, taking questions from House Democrats in a 2001 meeting similar to today's.

But after Bush got Democratic support for his No Child Left Behind plan, said former Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, who chaired the Democratic caucus at the time, bipartisanship came to an abrupt end.

"The Republican leadership in Congress wouldn't let him work with the Democrats," he said. "They basically vetoed it."

Obama's attempts to woo Republicans could face a similar constraint: growing restiveness within the president's own party. His pitch during Wednesday night's speech for a new generation of nuclear power plants and possible expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling got the desired approval from Republicans, but it fell flat with Democratic liberals.

When voters focus their frustration on the party in power, as they did in 1994 and 2006, the result was a shift in party control in the House. By contrast, during Jimmy Carter's presidency, moderate Republicans shared responsibility for controversial initiatives, such as returning the Panama Canal to Panamanian control. That helped limit Democratic midterm election losses.

"They punished both parties," said Davis, a former head of the Republican congressional campaign committee, "because it was less clear who was to blame."

In his first year, Obama passed up opportunities that might have made it more costly for Republicans to oppose his initiatives.

For example, the administration bowed to a powerful Democratic special interest, the trial-lawyer lobby, and refused to make significant changes in medical liability as part of its health care overhaul plan. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that a Republican proposal to limit medical malpractice costs would save taxpayers $54 billion over 10 years.

Now, with elections ahead, a weakened Obama might find it tougher to attract Republican support for his agenda. But simply by making a sustained attempt at bipartisan outreach, he could put Democratic candidates in a better position to attract swing votes this fall.

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