WASHINGTON – It was billed as a high-noon cease-fire between President Barack Obama and Senate Republicans, but the rare, private Capitol Hill meeting instead shot holes in the notion of any bipartisanship this election year.
When Obama appealed for bipartisanship on legislation in the six months remaining before Election Day, freshman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., confronted him, the senator later told reporters.
“I told him I thought there was a degree of audacity in him even showing up today after what happened with financial regulation,” Corker said after the meeting. “I asked him how he was able to reconcile that duplicity, coming in today to see us.”
Four people who were in the room said Obama bristled and defended his administration’s handling of negotiations. Republicans have long complained that Democrats are using heavy-handed tactics to push though Obama’s agenda.
On the way out, Obama approached Corker, according to the senator, who had been sitting just to the president’s right, to press his case. Corker repeated his.
“I mentioned that there was a very large disconnect between what he was saying and his actions,” Corker told reporters.
Applause could be heard as the president exited. “It was a good, frank discussion about a whole range of issues,” Obama told reporters.
That was one way of describing it, but Republicans leaving the meeting used other words.
“I think feelings are frayed, maybe, on both sides of the aisle,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
The prospects for progress weren’t high during a volatile election year in which every House seat, 36 in the Senate and Obama’s clout are on the line. The testy atmosphere inside the Lyndon Baines Johnson Room reflected the anger constituents are lobbing at their representatives over key agenda items, from the government’s economic stimulus to health care reform and now the handling of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We want to see if we can get some more work done,” Obama told reporters on the way into the session.
Soon enough, he had his answer, in bitter terms.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he told Obama that he had mischaracterized Arizona’s new immigration law as being “open to discrimination.”
“I pointed out that members of his administration who have not read the law have mischaracterized the law — a very egregious act on their part,” McCain said afterward.
White House spokesman Bill Burton said Obama told McCain that he has read the Arizona law himself and stands by his comments.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., pressed Obama on the administration’s response to the oil spill. Sen. John Barasso, R-Wyo., invoked the fierce debate over health care reform, which passed without a single Republican vote.
And then, there was Corker.
According to the Tennessee Republican and others in the room, that eruption started when Obama pledged to meet Republicans halfway on several issues.
Burton said the exchange “was actually pretty civil.”
“They disagreed about the amount of bipartisan effort that was put into financial regulatory reform,” Burton said. “But, as the president has said before, he would have loved to have gotten 70 or 80 votes on the bill, but he wasn’t going to run up the vote total if the expense was going to be watering down the legislation.”
The Tennessee Republican spent weeks in February and March in almost daily negotiations with Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., in an attempt to reach a bipartisan bill. Corker angered Republicans by taking the lead in the talks.
While Corker succeeded in winning some adjustments in the bill, Dodd eventually cut their talks short. Republicans declined to make changes to the bill in the committee and Dodd sent a bill to the floor backed by the White House.
In a statement after the meeting with Republicans, the White House said the president would continue to work toward bipartisanship.
Corker told reporters, “I just wanted him to tell me how when he wakes up in the morning, comes over to luncheon like ours today, how does he reconcile that duplicity?”
CHICAGOPRESSRELEASE.COM writers Erica Werner, Jim Kuhnhenn, Charles Babington and Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this report.