Congressional Republicans usually don't have a problem dismissing Democrats as tax-and-spend liberals. They love to hate House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and gleefully ridicule Senate majority leader Harry Reid. But they don't quite know how to engage the very popular new President, who is already showing that he isn't about to let them slip into the comfortable role of disloyal opposition without a fight.
That much became clear on Tuesday, when Barack Obama took the initiative by journeying to Capitol Hill to listen to GOP complaints about the emerging trillion-dollar stimulus plan being crafted by his fellow Democrats. Before the meeting, House minority leader John Boehner urged his party not to support the bill in its current form; and both behind closed doors with the President and in front of the microphones afterward, Republicans did their best to voice their frustration over the levels of spending and taxes they claim are being rammed down their throats. But many left Tuesday's meetings with Obama gushing as if they had just met their favorite rock star, snapping photos with the Democrat and admitting that he was paying them more attention than their own party's leader, President George W. Bush, ever had. "We are grateful for the outreach from the White House," House Republican Conference chairman Mike Pence said after his group's 75-min. meeting with Obama. "And we take as genuine the President's desire to set partisan differences aside." (See who's who in Obama's White House.)
Even before Obama's candid sit-down on Tuesday, the President had already launched a few preemptive strikes against the GOP. He made clear before taking office that he wanted to see tax cuts make up 40% of the stimulus plan. When Republicans like Boehner tried to start making political hay of things like family-planning aid for the poor in cash-strapped states, which was initially in the House version of the stimulus package, Obama called their bluff, personally asking Pelosi to remove it. And the Senate included a Republican-backed $70 billion fix to prevent the alternative minimum tax from hitting more of the middle class in its version of the bill, released on Tuesday, reportedly at Obama's urging.
But just because Obama has thus far been able to disarm Republicans doesn't mean they are about to surrender. On the contrary, many Republicans are simply focusing their fire on a much softer target, hoping to drive a wedge between the President and his party at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. "If you have an opponent with a 70% approval rating and one with a 20% approval rating, you're going to go after the one with a 20% approval rating," said a House GOP leadership aide, referring to the Democratic-controlled Congress's dismal approval ratings.
So while House Republicans in their first breath praised Obama on Tuesday, in their second breath they slammed Pelosi. "We encouraged the President to speak with Democrat leaders to say, 'Look, if you wanted a bipartisan bill like you said you wanted, then this has to be a collective process, not a unilateral process,' " said Representative Todd Tiahrt, a Kansas Republican.
Sowing seeds of discontent between Obama and Pelosi is a win-win proposition for the GOP. If Obama prevails, Republicans get a bigger seat at the table; if Pelosi gets her way, it's a blow to Obama's promise of inclusiveness and bipartisanship. "If he's willing to kick [the Democratic leaders], we're willing to applaud; we'll take it," another GOP leadership aide said. "Am I trying to stir up trouble between him and his party? Of course I am." (See pictures of John McCain's presidential campaign.)
Yet Obama is no patsy, and Republicans quickly learned that they'll have a hard time gaining the upper hand. While the President welcomed their suggestions on how to improve the stimulus plan, he drew some very clear lines in the sand. "Feel free to whack me over the head, because I probably will not compromise on that," Obama reportedly told the GOP conference when asked if he would accept their proposal to cut the middle-class tax rate in half for the next two years. (See pictures of Obama's Inauguration.)
He did, however, pledge to consider corporate tax breaks if Republicans would consider closing certain tax loopholes. He also reportedly told Senate Republicans that he would look at their proposed solutions for dealing with the foreclosure crisis and tax provisions for small businesses and companies looking to repatriate money from overseas. And he stressed that he would make tough spending choices for his first budget, mindful of the fact that he can't let the deficit continue to balloon.
At stake in this first standoff between the President and GOP are a few dozen House Republicans who might consider voting for the final product, and more crucially, several Republicans in the Senate, where the Democrats hold a narrower majority. While House GOP leaders remain openly opposed to the House bill that is expected to be passed on Wednesday, Obama has promised to work hard when the House and Senate reconcile the two versions to come up with something that at least some Republicans can support. "I recognize that we're not going to get 100% of support, but I think everybody there felt good that I was willing to explain how we put the package together, how we were thinking about it, and that we continue to welcome some good ideas," Obama told reporters on Tuesday. (See pictures of George W. Bush.)
Not everyone, of course, thinks Obama's outreach is such a stroke of genius. Many on the left believe he is wasting his time and giving away too much in trying to woo Republicans, who in the end may vote against the final package regardless. The President's spate of Executive Orders last week reversing many controversial Bush Administration policies has helped mute some of this criticism. But his outreach to the GOP, along with many of his centrist Cabinet picks, have dampened some progressive enthusiasm for the new President which Obama is not entirely unhappy about.
"Something tells me," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, "that if we have a healthy amount of chatter on either side, we're right in the middle of where the American people would want us to be."