GOP optimism about working with Obama in 2015 has quickly soured
Republican congressional aides say they think the president is poking them in the eye
WASHINGTON — After last fall's elections, Republicans talked a big game about wanting to work — even, gasp, compromise — with President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. But on the Tuesday before Obama’s sixth State of the Union address, a number of key GOP congressional aides were singing a different tune.
GOP leaders in Washington — in just a few short weeks — have become less hopeful about their ability to strike deals with the Democratic president over the coming year. Since Republicans took control of the Senate last fall, securing control of both chambers of Congress, the president has made a number of moves that have aggravated Republicans, straining relations with the legislature before it even began its work.
“I’d say that with every passing day the president’s statements are draining more and more optimism out of our conference on the prospects for bipartisan accomplishment,” said one Senate Republican aide. “He made gestures to the contrary early on, but everything in recent weeks has been strident and hostile to cooperation. This tax plan — and the way it was announced — is just the latest, but a clear sign of how he’s changed his tune since Election Day.”
The White House announced this past weekend that Obama would call in his speech Tuesday night for $320 billion in tax hikes over 10 years on capital gains and inherited assets, shifting the money to give tax breaks to less-well-off Americans. The details of the plan, while different from what Republicans would want, were less disagreeable to them than the fact that the White House fired an opening salvo in the tax-reform debate without trying to work with Republicans to reach a deal acceptable to both sides.
Another Senate Republican aide said there is now “weary optimism” among Republicans.
“The Congress and White House are still in the process of defining the relationship before deciding to hold hands or call it quits,” the second Senate GOP aide said. “There are areas where we can and should be able to find common ground, but there is a sense among some on the Hill that the president has poisoned the well by acting unilaterally, whether on immigration, Cuba, saying he’d veto Keystone before it even got off the Senate floor and now releasing a plan to increase taxes on small businesses while tax-reform negotiations are in progress.
“Hope remains that we can put differences on these issues aside and build trust on areas where we should be able to come together — like corporate tax reform, expanding exports and regulatory relief — but it remains to be seen how many blows this relationship can take before it crumbles.”
Yuval Levin, a conservative thinker who edits National Affairs magazine and who regularly consults with Republican legislative leaders, said Obama’s proposals between the fall elections and his State of the Union address “seem designed to turn off Republicans — to draw politically useful opposition rather than substantively productive support.”
The suspicion among GOP elites is that Obama — rather than quietly seeking to work on tax reform, energy and smart regulation — is provoking the Republican Party’s most conservative elements in order to render its leadership’s attempts at compromise hopeless, all with an eye toward diminishing the GOP politically in the eyes of the public.
But another leading conservative thinker, Bill Kristol, said the GOP should quit whining.
“I give the president credit. He decided, ‘You know what? I lost an election. I’m going on offense.’ And the Republicans really haven’t done much in response,” Kristol, the founder of The Weekly Standard magazine, said on CNN. “If you asked me, ‘What is the Republican Congress’ actual legislative agenda — which is better than the president’s proposals — to help the middle class?’ I’d be a little bit befuddled.”
And a Senate Democratic leadership aide said that “the challenge [the GOP is] still facing is whether they want their brand to simply be one of challenging Obama at every turn.
“If they can get beyond that, then I think the president has indicated openness to discussing infrastructure, trade, criminal justice and a host of other reforms,” the Democratic aide said.
The president in December issued an executive order allowing many undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. legally, under a set of conditions. While this move angered many Republicans at the time and is being challenged in court, the political rationale for moving unilaterally was straightforward. The GOP has failed to make any changes to immigration law over the past few years, and so the president argued that he was fixing a problem that the Republicans wouldn’t or couldn’t.
But Republicans who had hoped to work with Obama viewed subsequent moves by the president with greater disappointment. The White House has threatened to veto a bill that would eliminate the medical-device tax from Obamacare, an idea with support from several Democratic senators. And on Tuesday the Obama administration issued a veto threat on energy legislation coming from the House, saying the president would send back to Congress a proposal to allow automatic approval of natural-gas pipeline permits if federal regulators didn’t approve or deny the request within 90 days of the environmental review’s completion. The White House called the time frame “rigid” and “unworkable.”
Obama has already threatened to veto legislation that would expand the Keystone Pipeline, which has carried oil from Canada to the U.S. since 2010. Republicans want to increase the amount of crude being shipped into the U.S., but environmentalists oppose the new section of pipeline.
That leaves trade as one of the few remaining areas of potential optimism. Obama is seeking to get agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal being negotiated between the U.S. and 11 other countries, most of them in Southeast Asia. But even on this issue, a senior Republican congressional aide slammed the White House as being more about posturing than results.
“They keep talking about trade as a priority, but they do NOTHING,” the aide said in an email. “They are in single digits for [Democratic] votes in the House. As far as we can tell, the only reason they keep mentioning it is so that Valerie Jarrett can go to [Business Roundtable] meetings, but they have NO plan to actually get it done.
“All of that is to say that I don’t think there’s much genuine optimism about getting things done. The people in this Administration are ideologues, and now that the President doesn’t have to stand for reelection again we are really seeing that,” the aide concluded.
But Jason Grumet, founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said that while progress may be farther on the horizon than just this year, it will be attainable eventually.
“Our democracy careens from optimism to anguish many times each day,” Grumet said. “Factors supporting rational optimism about our government include: [Senate] Leader [Mitch] McConnell allowing the Senate to actually vote on amendments; the improving economy, which makes everyone a little happier and more inclined to collaborate; and the growing level of frustration and anger from those who want to legislate.
“There will be authentic progress on tax reform over the next two years, though major legislation will probably not come together until after the next election. Action on infrastructure is possible. Energy legislation is generally viable in a divided Congress, as members have regional interests that often buffer party interests,” Grumet said. “Once we get through the universal silliness about a pipeline, there can be progress on energy policy.”