Democratic Leaders Are Obama’s Biggest Obstacle to Bipartisanship

Congressional Democratic leaders are the biggest obstacle to cooperation.


By Linda Killian, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

President Barack Obama’s meeting with Senate Democrats Wednesday didn’t have quite the same zing as did his encounter session with House Republicans last week. His meeting with Republicans featured Obama protesting that he is not an “ideologue” and accusing the Republicans of characterizing the Democratic healthcare reform plan as “some Bolshevik plot.”

Obama also chided the Republicans for name calling rather than showing a genuine interest in working together. “You’ve given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you’ve been telling your constituents is ‘This guy’s doing all kinds of crazy stuff that’s going to destroy America.’… This is part of what happens in our politics where we demonize the other side so much that when it comes to actually getting things done, it becomes tough to do.”

Obama promised the Republicans “I am absolutely committed to working with you on these issues” and it looks like he plans to make good on that promise. The White House announced Wednesday that the president will host a bipartisan meeting of congressional leaders on February 9 and that session will be just the first in a series of monthly bipartisan leadership meetings the president will hold. In the wake of Obama’s visit with the Republicans, there has been a call for more televised Q&As between the president and members of Congress like the British parliament’s prime minister question time. But next week’s closed door session at the White House will undoubtedly accomplish much more than half a dozen televised meetings where both sides are performing for the camera.

And if the president is serious about actually getting congressional Republicans and Democrats to work together he had best have a private chat first with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who has done everything she can to freeze out the Republicans, and who was called on that several times at the Baltimore meeting. Rep. Peter Roskam, who served with Obama in the Illinois legislature, told the president that the Republicans had been “stiff armed” by Pelosi. Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn said House Democratic leaders have been “an impediment instead of a conduit” to the president for GOP ideas on healthcare reform.

Blackburn serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the chief committees involved in writing health reform legislation. She told me Republicans have felt “locked out of the process” and that much of the health reform bill took shape “behind closed doors.”

Blackburn says Pelosi and the Democrats have a “go it alone--we’re going to pass what we want--approach to legislating.”

Both Blackburn and John Shadegg, also a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, say Republican amendments to the healthcare bill that were passed in committee with Democratic votes, were stripped out of the legislation by Pelosi before it even reached the Rules Committee. Shadegg, a member of the GOP class of ’94 which gave the Republicans control of the House and made Newt Gingrich Speaker, was undoubtedly being a bit hyperbolic when he told me that Pelosi is “the most partisan speaker in the history of this nation.”

But it does seem clear Pelosi has no interest in cooperating with the Republicans voluntarily and will need some strong encouragement from Obama to do so.

On the Senate side, where Democrats initially engaged key Republicans like Olympia Snowe in the health reform negotiations, the end result was much the same. When it came time to put the final deal together, the Republicans were shut out. Snowe has complained of the same kind of problems--decision making behind closed doors, sweetheart deals and refusing to allow the GOP to offer amendments to the legislation which she said resulted in her decision to vote against the final bill.

It’s one thing for the president to talk about bipartisanship. He can hold a few meetings or even invite GOP leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to the White House to watch the Super Bowl. But if he is serious about actually crafting some bipartisan legislation, he will need to use his powerful gifts of persuasion on his own congressional leaders because the gulf between Democratic and Republican approaches to healthcare reform and many other issues is so vast, coming together in the middle certainly won’t happen any other way.

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