For a White House that has kept GOP leaders at an unusually long arm's length, it’s a moment to recalibrate relations – a prospect that has many congressional Democrats on edge. For an administration that has spent its first two years trying to build Democratic supermajorities in the Senate, the question is now whether Mr. Obama should play ball with the Republicans – and how much he should compromise.
“I think this is the beginning of a new relationship with leaders in the House and the Senate,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs at a briefing on Monday. “I think this is the beginning of a longer-term conversation about how we get to compromise on issues that we know are important for the American people."
The White House agenda for the meeting focuses on extending Bush-era tax cuts, now set to expire at the end of the year, for middle-class Americans, as well as moving to swift Senate ratification of a nuclear-arms pact with Russia, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).
The Republican leaders, meanwhile, will focus on extending the tax cuts for all Americans, including the top income brackets. “We hope the president is willing to work with us on the American people's priorities," says Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Republican leader John Boehner.
Obama has had rocky relations with Republican leaders since the start of his presidency.
To Republican eyes, Obama got off to a bad start during the runup to his first meeting with the House Republican conference in January 2009. The president pointedly came to a Capitol Hill meeting with the House GOP caucus to win support for his stimulus plan. This despite the fact that, just hours before, Mr. Boehner publicly opposed the plan.
Nor did relations improve after the president offered to speak to the House GOP caucus at a retreat in Baltimore in February 2010. He asked that the meeting be televised, then publicly blasted Republicans for not helping solve the nation’s problems.
But ties with the GOP minority were not a priority. Democrats controlled the House and had 59 or 60 seats in the Senate. So the president focused his attention on a handful of GOP Senate moderates, whose occasional backing was enough to break Republican filibusters.
Until Aug. 4, the president had never met one-on-one with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. By contrast, Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, a key GOP moderate, says she has met with the president on policy issues many times in the first years of his presidency. “But I really think it’s time for him to meet with the [GOP] leaders,” she says. “I hope it’s the start of a new relationship.”
Weekly bipartisan leadership meetings between the White House and congressional leaders were the norm in the 1960s and '70s. “President Nixon held weekly, bipartisan leadership meetings with members of Congress. Clinton held monthly meetings,” says Donald Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Obama is not doing it at all.”
Too willing to compromise?
Some Democrats worry that the new GOP head count in the House and Senate, come January, could tempt the White House into compromises that undermine policies Democrats have defended while in power, most notably not extending Bush-era tax breaks to people in the top tax brackets.
“When we have such a huge deficit, we simply cannot give tax breaks to the wealthiest in this country,” says Sen. Bernard Sanders (I) of Vermont. “I hope the president draws a clear line that we are not going to cut Social Security or raise the retirement age.”
Yet to date, seven Senate Democrats have gone on record supporting tax breaks for all Americans, at least in the short run.
Some moderate Democrats, whose ranks were severely depleted in the 2010 midterm election, are also renewing calls for bipartisan outreach.
“I think the president has a good sense of where our caucus is coming from and the difficulties he has ahead of him,” says Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California. “The problems we face are so big that something has to be done in a bipartisan way. We have to find a way out of this thicket together.”