Republican senators complained that President Barack Obama talked about cooperation while pushing a “far left” agenda during a private meeting that one lawmaker described as “very tense.”
Obama went to Capitol Hill yesterday to press for bipartisanship on issues such as immigration and energy policy that he wants Congress to tackle this year.
Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who will be one of 12 Senate negotiators on merging House-Senate financial-overhaul bills, said Obama “talked a great deal about bipartisanship” while pushing “very partisan” proposals.
“I asked him how he was able to reconcile that duplicity coming in today to see us,” Corker said yesterday. “I just found it pretty audacious that he would be here today as we move into election season using Republican senators as a prop to talk about bipartisanship.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the president has been pushing proposals on the “far left” and trying to pass them with support from only a few Republicans. “That’s not our idea of bipartisanship,” he said.
Obama continually has said he wants at least some Republican backing for his priorities. Just four Senate Republicans last week supported Democrats’ legislation to rewrite the rules governing Wall Street, and Republicans unanimously opposed the health-care bill that passed in March.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs released a statement saying Obama “had a good exchange” with Republicans, asking “for their cooperation in finishing work on measures to help create jobs and improve our economy.” Obama urged Republicans “to work with him” on revamping immigration policy and energy legislation, Gibbs said.
Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi said the meeting included an angry exchange between Obama and Arizona senators John McCain and Jon Kyl over the administration’s criticism of a new law in that state to crack down on illegal immigration.
“The back and forth was very tense throughout the meeting,” Wicker said.
Other senators said Obama must do more to secure the country’s border with Mexico before pressing for legislation to rewrite immigration rules.
Obama plans to deploy as many as 1,200 additional National Guard troops to the border area to aid counternarcotics enforcement and provide support for law enforcement, an administration official who requested anonymity said yesterday.
Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas said Obama told the lawmakers he wants Congress to act on immigration and energy policy this year after completing work on supplemental war funding and confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. Brownback said he was skeptical that lawmakers could agree on those issues because Obama has shunned an incremental approach on major issues such as health care.
“Everything seems to be as far left as you can possibly get it instead of being bipartisan,” Brownback said.
Republican Senator Mike Johanns of Nebraska said Obama’s agenda may be more “ambitious” than voters want, particularly on immigration. “He’s got to step back and see where the country’s at,” Johanns said.
Obama also asked the lawmakers for cooperation on legislation to help small businesses secure financing and ratification of a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, according to the White House statement.
The president “asked us to find ways to move forward on a lot of fronts,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.
McConnell told reporters that neither side expected to reach agreements on issues yesterday. “Coming up and talking is always a good sign,” he said.
Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee told reporters that Republicans “appreciate the opportunity to interact with the president, but at the end of the day it really comes down not to so much the rhetoric, as the actions that back it up, and at least so far we haven’t seen those.”
Democrats are trying to jumpstart debates on immigration and energy before the November elections that will determine which party controls the House and Senate for the rest of Obama’s term. Democrats now have majorities in both chambers.
Obama met with Republican senators shortly after his inauguration in January 2009. Since then he has scored victories on two of his biggest legislative initiatives, the health-care overhaul and Senate approval of the financial-regulation bill.
The Republican National Committee has been promoting continued opposition to the health-care law and criticism of the financial regulatory passage. Republican congressional leaders including McConnell have hit the administration over government spending and the deficit.
The immigration issue has long divided lawmakers. Senate Democratic leaders last month announced the outlines of immigration legislation that would bolster border security and later provide a way for many of the 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S. to become American citizens.
Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Senate Democratic leader, has been meeting with centrist Republicans in recent weeks. No Republican has so far endorsed the immigration plan. Graham, who spent months working with Schumer on immigration, is balking at action this year.
Graham also pulled out of a plan on energy and climate-change legislation. He had been the only Republican working with Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, on the proposal.