Partisan, for worse or better

President Obama used his first full week on the job to start making good on those soaring pledges of bipartisanship and cooperation he made on the campaign trail.

He talked with Republicans in the Capitol basement, hosted a congressional cocktail party at the White House and took questions from GOP senators at lunch. But as the massive economic stimulus bill lumbered from the House to the Senate, it was clear who poses the biggest barrier to his effort to change the tone of Washington politics, at least for now:

His fellow Democrats.

That may seem an odd accusation after every single Republican in the U.S. House voted against the bill last week, despite personal entreaties from Obama.

But as the Democrats wrote it, tweaked it and then passed it easily on Wednesday night, they were sending a message to Republicans, too: We don't need you.

With nothing to gain, it's no wonder the Republicans walked away. After two woeful elections that have reduced the House GOP to all but a hardened nub of conservatives, and after eight years of excess under President George W. Bush that ruined their reputation for fiscal restraint, Republicans are trying to return to their "core" values of lower taxes and smaller government.

The $819 billion spending bill made an easy target, especially since they felt little sense of ownership.

Obama seemed as if he were trying to make up for this a little as he schmoozed Republicans on Capitol Hill, kibitzing with the likes of Eric Cantor, the House Republican whip, inviting Florida Republican Vern Buchanan to work out at the White House gym and urging Democratic leaders to dial it back a bit and cut the funding for contraceptives and reseeding the National Mall from the stimulus package.

"There are some legitimate philosophical differences with parts of my plan that the Republicans have, and I respect that," Obama said after spending more than an hour in a closed-door meeting with House Republicans.

"I don't expect a hundred percent agreement from my Republican colleagues, but I do hope that we can all put politics aside, and do the American people's business right now."

And you know what? Republicans believed him. In interviews afterward, GOP lawmakers seemed smitten, gushing that even if they don't agree with everything he wants to do, he convinced them he truly wants their support.

"We've met more with Obama than we have with Nancy Pelosi," Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, said. "That says something right there."

• • •

Bipartisanship. During Obama's presidential campaign, it was one of those buzzwords, like change and prosperity — an ideal America desired, but somehow was lacking.

But is it really the answer to better government? In a word, no.

The opposition's job in U.S. politics always has been to bedevil the majority, to poke holes in its ideas and present alternatives and, we hope, to make for better policy.

Sometimes partisanship works right, even now. But over the past two decades, especially, the timbre of the debate has become increasingly ugly, as members see their opponents not as ideological adversaries with the common cause of helping America, but as enemies of American values.

Senior members blame institutional changes: Thanks to more convenient airline schedules, it's easy to head home for the weekends, so they spend little off-time building friendships. Then there's the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet, which hype conflict and reward the loudmouths and bomb throwers. Partisans on the left and the right can instantly deride moderate dealmakers in their camps as weak-kneed sellouts. (Look what happened to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., when he tried to broker an immigration reform bill.)

Meanwhile, congressional redistricting has led to a rash of safe Republican and safe Democratic districts, which can be won by fervent partisans. With fewer than half of the seats in the House ever really up for grabs, members who hold safe seats have little incentive to compromise.

"It used to be, the speaker and minority leader had lunch, and told stories after 5, and had drinks," said Charles O. Jones, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin who has studied the relationship between presidents and Congress for nearly 50 years.

"They still get things done, but it's done in about an unattractive way, as a longtime student of Congress, that I've seen."

• • •

The stimulus bill doesn't offer many signs for hope. All week, the Republicans ignored evidence from economic experts that it would, indeed, pump money into the economy and likely create several million jobs, portraying it instead as fat on pork and too lean on tax cuts.

And the Democrats acted like they hit the lotto after going hungry for the 15 years, when they last held both the Congress and the White House. Seemingly unable to resist, they stuffed the bill with goodies they long have coveted, including money for national parks, education, health care and scientific research.

Nor did they seek a Republican co-sponsor or make other symbolic attempts at bipartisanship. Pelosi argued Democrats held several hearings and allowed 13 Republican amendments to the bill, which is true, but they did precious little else.

"They had every opportunity," argued Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, a key gatekeeper for the bill, which accepted six of those GOP amendments.

"But you cannot ignore the fact that Floridians and people all across the country voted for change," she added. "And, really, if the smaller Republican minority (is) going to continue to push the Bush policies that have left our economy in ruins, then no. That's not following through on what the voters demanded in the last election."

But like Obama keeps saying, voters didn't demand one-sided politics in the last election, either.

• • •

Most new presidents pledge to unite the nation and change the tone of politics. Most fail. Remember how Bush talked about playing well with Democrats when he was governor of Texas, and how he was going to bring that spirit of cooperation to D.C.? He used the word "civility" four times in his first inaugural address; he didn't use it once in his second.

When Obama met with House Republicans last week, he told them he took no pride of authorship in the House version of the bill and that he hoped he could help change it to be more to their liking before it reaches his desk later this month.

Presumably, the president will turn his attention to the Senate, where several Republicans voted for the Senate version of the stimulus bill in committees last week and where Democrats hope to woo more with extra tax cuts the House didn't consider.

But Congress is its own beast, and the only power Obama really has is his immense popularity, which serves as a warning that it may be risky to cross him.

If he is to turn his rhetoric about cooperation into reality, Obama must bear in mind that even bipartisanship is a partisan exercise — each side must feel like it's winning — and use his leverage first to convince fellow Democrats that it's in their interest to cooperate.

Only then will it do him any good to work on the Republicans.

Wes Allison covers Congress and politics from the Times Washington bureau. He can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

Partisan, for worse or better 02/04/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 4, 2009 12:13pm]

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