President Barack Obama rolled into the Capitol with a clear message for Republicans Tuesday afternoon: He’s happy to talk, but he’s not compromising on tax cuts.
Obama was ready for the House Republicans to pounce, telling them: "Feel free to whack me over the head because I probably will not compromise on that part [tax cuts],” according to two sources in the room.
One conservative House Republican who attended the hour-long closed door session was asked if Obama was winning any votes: "Nope. He said he won't compromise on more tax cuts. All form - not substance."
House Republicans pelted Obama for more than 30 minutes with questions about deficits, taxes and spending, according to sources inside the private meeting. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), won applause from his GOP colleagues when he asked the president whether he would promise that the stimulus would not be an excuse to raise taxes or increase spending. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), asked Obama for common ground on taxes in the $825 billion package – and was rejected.
Obama responded, according to sources in the room, that he was worried about the deficit and debt, and promised that his fiscal 2010 budget – coming out next month – would make hard choices in terms of spending cuts in an effort to reduce the deficit. And the reality is that Obama and Democrats don’t need any Republican House votes to pass the stimulus.
After an hour with House Republicans, Obama headed to meet the Senate GOP conference. The Tuesday meeting comes a day after the Senate GOP surprised the administration Monday evening by mustering a muscular 30 votes — including their three top leaders — against the inevitable confirmation of Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary.
“I recognize that we're not going to get 100 percent of support but I think everybody there felt good that I'm willing to explain how I put the package together, how we were thinking about it,” Obama said in brief remarks after the House Republican meeting.
Publicly, Republicans played nice once the president left their meeting.
“The door of our conference will stay open to this president,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind), the House Republican Conference chairman. “We are grateful for his outreach, we are grateful for the spirit of bipartisanship he is challenging this conf to embrace.”
The frank Q & A between a popular new president and a frustrated, out of power minority party was originally set up as a diplomatic outreach by a White House that has promised to be more bipartisan.
But as the week wears on, it’s clear that the GOP is finding its voice as a stout opposition party instead of the party of compromise.
Sen. John McCain started this week's pummeling, declaring Sunday that he would oppose Obama's stimulus package as written. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has kept up a daily din of opposition to the specifics of the package, mocking the inclusion of a mob museum and a water park, and demanding more discussion and transparency. Senate Republicans are also rallying against the Democratic version of a children’s health care bill being debated this week.
The nitpicking took its toll, and Obama on Monday privately urged House Democrats to remove a notable flash point: funds for contraception that had been defended by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on national television just a day before. The Democrats agreed.
Then this morning, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) went for the jugular, urging his members to oppose the economic centerpiece of Obama's first term just hours before the president paid the Republicans the compliment of coming to the Capitol for a private meeting — even before he did the same for House Democrats.
Obama's aides cast the visit as an outstretched hand — and it got slapped.
The bottom line: a coordinated effort to embarras a president who looked largely unassailable just weeks ago.
Yet Republicans are still walking a balance beam – trying to give the appearance that they are listening to Obama’s rhetoric while claiming that the Democratic Congress is ruining the Obama message.
McConnell told the Today Show Tuesday morning that Democrats in Congress are "drifting away" from Obama's preferred stimulus plan, which was supposed to include 40 percent tax cuts and be free of earmarks.
Democrats hope the tactics backfire.
"This is a very dangerous political vote for House Republicans, in particular those from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan," said a White House aide familiar with House districts. "Their constituents want them to take action to save the economy, not block progress."
But most GOP moderates have retired or lost, so there is little political danger with House Republicans in opposing another $825 billion in spending at a time when many conservative-leaning voters are weary of government intervention after months of bailouts. Further, Republicans on the Hill are instead framing their overwhelming opposition to the stimulus bill as a vote against a congressional Democratic leadership that is far less popular than Obama.
But, no, it’s not Obama’s fault.
“It’s not so much his effort, it’s what the House has done with this bill, what Pelosi has done with this bill,” explains Kay Granger (R-TX), a veteran member of the Appropriations Committee.
Does all this mean the honeymoon over?
"It never started,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
Hatch said the State Children’s Health Insurance bill, for example, has been drafted by Democrats the bill so it might cover the children of illegal immigrants.
"You're talking to the author of the legislation and they haven't spent one minute discussing it with me, other than preliminary discussions in the Finance Committee that began before this administration took over,” Hatch said. "I want to support the president when I can and I will do so regardless of how badly I feel about these very, very partisan first strike approaches.”
House leaders so far are making no such claims to bipartisanship.
Boehner on Tuesday morning told members that he's voting against the stimulus, and his No. 2, GOP Whip Eric Cantor, told the assembled Republicans that there wasn't any reason for them to support the measure, according to another person in the room. Cantor and his whip team are going to urge GOP members to oppose it.
In a nod to the president, Boehner did point out that this was the third time that Obama has met with Republican leaders, compared with the zero meetings they've held Pelosi — a now-familiar refrain from Republicans in the House. But Obama’s diplomacy clearly isn’t buying any votes yet.
Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), a young conservative firebrand, was blunt when asked what happened to Obama’s honeymoon: “Ask Pelosi.”
“When you have an operating majority like they do, they don’t particularly care for Republican input even when the president says it would be nice.”
Democrats believe Republicans are simply setting themselves up again as obstructionists and the “party of no.”
“The American people rejected the Bush economic policies of the past eight years that resulted in millions of jobs lost and Republicans now have an opportunity to work with the President and Democrats to move our country forward,” one Democratic aide said. “It would be a shame if Republicans choose to promote the same policies instead of listening to the overwhelming majority of Americans who support swift action on the House bill.”
Despite the grim outlook for Republican support, administration officials are not giving up. In addition to the president's visit, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is hosting group of congressional Republicans at the White House tonight. Vice President Joe Biden is visiting the Senate Democratic lunch, and the Senate Finance Committee is undergoing a lengthy markup of the legislation.
"They’ll talk stimulus, but also whatever else is on their mind and whatever they want to talk about," said an administration aide.
Republicans were appreciative of the gesture - but non-commital.
"I'm glad to listen," said Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.).
Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), leader of the conservative Republican Study Committee, is already testing out his message to Obama.
“This is bad policy and we think, Mr. President, with all due respect that you’re getting some bad advice, maybe from Ms. Pelosi maybe from Mr. Reid in regard to a lot of things that Democrats have been wanting from years even before you became a United States Senator and they’re throwing all this in there,” Price said. “It in no way shape or form looks like true emergency spending.”
Manu Raju contributed to this story.