Obama domestic agenda largely a one-party effort

Presses forward with little to no GOP support

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / November 17, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

WASHINGTON - Despite early pleas for bipartisanship, President Obama is forging ahead with his domestic agenda with a largely single-party strategy, unable to corral more than a handful of Republicans on a wide range of major legislation before Congress.

Vowing to bring change to Washington, Obama had hoped to draw Republicans into the development of sweeping proposals on the environment, health care, the economy, and the workplace. Publicly, Obama and his team continue to insist they welcome GOP input on controversial legislation. Democrats facing tough reelection campaigns next year are eager for bipartisan votes that could help inoculate them from partisan attacks on their records.

But lawmakers in both parties say the relationship between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill has reached a new low that has all but killed any chance for broad bipartisan collaboration. Democrats, with majorities in both the House and Senate, plan to try to pass their proposals with the votes they have.

Just before the House voted Nov. 7 on the massive health care bill, Obama went to the Rose Garden to urge all House members to “answer the call of history,’’ making no mention of deep partisan divisions on the topic.

But less than two hours earlier, in a closed meeting of Democrats, the president appeared resigned to pushing through the bill without any Republicans, according to several lawmakers and staff present. Obama mentioned an equal pay law and a children’s health insurance expansion he signed this year and noted, “You did it without any help from the other side,’’ according to notes taken by a House staffer.

Only one House Republican supported the health care bill - and only after a personal appeal from Obama. Just one Republican voted for the $787 billion economic stimulus package, and Republicans have since lined up to bash it as a waste of money.

Other major legislation appears headed for the same single-party fate, as the vast majority of Republicans appear determined to deny Obama and the Democrats any significant victories.

Climate change legislation won House approval with just a handful of GOP votes. Democratic Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut brought no Republican colleagues with him last week as he unveiled a sweeping plan to overhaul financial regulations - an issue that normally is more bipartisan. Representative Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat and chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said the administration is not anticipating GOP support in the House for the financial services overhaul bill there.

“He’s learned how right-wing these people are,’’ Frank said.

David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser, said the White House can still work with some Republicans, including moderate Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, who have been willing to negotiate. Snowe said she has been in frequent contact with White House officials seeking her support for the Senate health care plan.

But much of the GOP appears determined to fight instead, Axelrod said.

“It’s a different period,’’ he said in an interview. “I think decisions have been made [by GOP leaders] to oppose, rather than participate, in some cases.

“Right now, the energy in the party comes from the ‘Palinistas’ who basically threatened retribution against anyone who cooperates or tries to play a constructive role,’’ Axelrod added, referring to Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska, and her supporters. Democrats argue that some Republicans are not just fighting over policy, but also challenging the legitimacy of Democratic control of Congress. Republicans boycotted a watershed Senate committee vote this month on climate change legislation and unsuccessfully tried to stop Democrats from talking on the House floor during the health care debate.

Some Republicans have shifted their strategy against the health care bill from fighting over the details to questioning the very constitutionality of mandatory health insurance. And a few have sympathized with the so-called birthers, who continue to challenge Obama’s citizenship and legitimacy as president despite all evidence to the contrary.

“It’s an assault on the whole notion of governance. It’s bizarre,’’ Frank said.

Republicans insist they are willing to work with the majority party, but say that Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress have shut them out of the process and that the two parties are so far apart on their visions for the country that there is little room for compromise.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican who is minority leader, has been to the White House once since August, in contrast to the monthly bipartisan meetings that leaders had with President George W. Bush “whether we needed them or not,’’ said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart.

But given Democrats’ wide majorities, more talking might not make the difference, Stewart said. “Senator McConnell has never complained about the communication - he’s complained about the policy,’’ he said.

Except for the question of how to proceed in Afghanistan - an issue Obama discussed with a bipartisan group at the White House in October and on which he could win more support from Republicans than Democrats - the administration is not reaching out to the GOP, said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.

“On every issue, save Afghanistan, they have chosen to go it alone,’’ Steel said.

Republicans have responded by attempting to block Obama’s agenda entirely instead of revising it more to their liking.

“The Republican game plan is to make the president unsuccessful,’’ said Jon Delano, a political analyst and adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “The only way he picks up a Republican vote is if you have a Republican who really is more interested in policy than politics.’’

On the stimulus, for example, Democrats put in provisions to attract Republican support, such as a tax credit for first-time homeowners, noted Representative Joseph Crowley, Democrat of New York. But the GOP opposed the package as too expensive.

“The overtures have been there. They’ve just been playing the same tune,’’ Crowley said.

But Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, said the White House could be forced to give more weight to GOP views.

“I think he will engage us if they’re not succeeding at what they want to do,’’ Coburn said.

Graphic Partisan divide