Senate Republicans unmoved by Obama visit: 'We were props'

President Obama hoped to reach out to Senate Republicans in a meeting Tuesday. But 'we simply have a large difference of opinion,' one said.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama returns to the White House on Tuesday after a meeting with the Senate Republican Caucus.

In a rare move, President Obama appeared before the Senate Republican caucus Tuesday to ask for help moving the remaining big items on his agenda this year: jobs, immigration reform, energy legislation, the START nuclear proliferation treaty, and a timely confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan.

“He’s a very ambitious guy,” said Sen. Mike Johanns (R) of Nebraska, after the closed meeting just off the Senate floor that attendees described as ranging from cordial to “spirited” or tense.

While it’s not uncommon for presidents to invite members of the opposition to the White House, it’s unusual for presidents to face the lions on their home turf. The lions emerged from the meeting unconvinced.

“We were props today as we move into an electoral cycle,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, who complained that White House officials derailed bipartisan negotiations over financial reform legislation in the Senate Banking Committee.

“There’s a tremendous disconnect between his words and the actions of his administration,” said Corker, who said that he asked the president how he reconciled “that duplicity.”

Such responses come in sharp contrast to President Obama‘s first meeting with the House Republican caucus at the dawn of a new administration in February 2009. Then, both sides publicly held out the hope that a more bipartisan tone might be possible.

“It was good to see the president back here. We all know him, like him, and appreciate his willingness to engage in a spirited exchange of the kind we had today,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, who chairs the Senate Republican Conference.

“We simply have a large difference of opinion … not likely to be settled until November, about taxes, spending, debt, and whether we ought to be focusing on government jobs or creating an environment in which we can have more private sector jobs,” he added.

Republicans are urging Obama to scale down expectations and do smaller versions of his energy and immigration bills. “He needs to be realistic about what’s possible and what’s not,” says Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, who has worked with the White House on issues ranging from energy and immigration to interrogation of detainees. “There are things we can do on nuclear power and alternative energy without having to price carbon and expand drilling.”

The president told the conference that the Gulf oil disaster should “heighten our sense of urgency to hasten the development of new, clean energy sources,” according to the White House Press Office.

On immigration, Republicans told the president that he could not move comprehensive reform without first securing the nation’s borders. “I know there's some feeling on the other side that if the border is secured, then conservatives would feel less likely to support comprehensive reform,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, the Senate Republican whip. “But from our perspective, whether that's true or not – and I don't think it is – it's important to secure the border simply because of all of the reasons why that is important, and that, ironically, securing the border will make it easier, not more difficult to later on get comprehensive reform.”

After the meeting, an administration official confirmed that the president will be requesting the deployment of 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest border, as well as $500 million in supplemental funds for enhanced border protection and law enforcement activities. The National Guard will provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support until Customs and Border Protection can recruit and train additional officers and agents to serve on the border.

"While I appreciate the president’s acknowledgment that his administration has done too little to secure our border, his proposal still comes up short," said Sen. John Cornyn [R] of Texas, in a statement. "Temporary fixes are no solution to long-term challenges.” Senate Republicans want to move border security amendments as part of a $59 billion war supplemental bill before the Senate this week.

These presidential meetings solely with opposition lawmakers are unusual and relatively recent, according to the Senate library. President Obama met with the House GOP caucus in February 2009. President George W. Bush met with the Democrats at a retreat in 2001.

“Obviously, there were continued differences on some of these issues. But, the President believes that direct dialogue is better than posturing, and he was pleased to have the opportunity to share views with the conference,” said the White House Press Office.


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