Two days after the 2008 election, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was staring down the frozen food aisle at the local grocery store when he got a call from the newly elected president.
McConnell and Barack Obama agreed that if they worked together, they could accomplish big things for the country.
Now’s their chance, and it’s not looking good.
As the August deadline approaches to raise the debt ceiling, the Kentucky Republican and Obama not only have no real personal relationship, they’ve had limited exposure to one another and they are both being driven away from deal making by partisans who do not want to give in on what will become a defining vote not only for this Congress but for the financial health of the U.S. economy.
Since being sworn in as president in January 2009, Obama and McConnell have met together just three times without other congressional leaders — the first meeting was in August 2010 and the most recent one occurred Monday.
This week’s meeting didn’t seem to go very well, with McConnell telling senators later that they were still no closer to resolving their impasse and a Democrat familiar with the session saying the president was “tough” on the leader. McConnell even stayed longer to speak with Vice President Joe Biden, who also sat in the Obama meeting, a person familiar with the matter said. Both the White House and McConnell’s office refused to give details about the meeting.
Tensions have only escalated since their Monday meeting. Obama scolded congressional leaders for not doing their jobs, blasted Republicans for posturing by opposing tax hikes and compared Congress to children unable to finish their homework on time.
On the Senate floor Thursday, McConnell blasted back at the president, saying Obama “does not get it” when he calls for higher tax revenues, saying any plan with tax hikes would fail to pass Congress as part of a deficit-reduction deal.
“So let me do something that I think would be constructive,” he said. “I’d like to invite the president to come to the Capitol today to meet with Senate Republicans. Anytime this afternoon he’s available, to come on up to the Capitol and meet with Senate Republicans, hear directly from them, and we can discuss what he has in mind. And we can … maybe finally start talking about what’s actually possible.”
The White House dismissed the effort as pure theater.
“What the senator invited the president to do was to hear Senate Republicans restate their maximalist position,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “We know what that position is.”
The hardball approach is a departure from a vision for divided government that McConnell has often spoken highly about. Many times, McConnell has spoken of the 1983 Social Security deal between Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill, and the 1996 welfare reform breakthrough between the Republican Congress and Bill Clinton, as a model for compromise.
But with the current president — and the more conservative Republican caucus behind him — McConnell has shown no signs of compromising on tax increases or other forms of revenue in a debt deal.
Beyond the political divisions, McConnell and Obama don’t have much in common personally.
While they both are sports fans, Obama golfs while McConnell doesn’t. Obama is an orator who can capture a crowd but can be distant from his colleagues. McConnell likes to give rousing partisan speeches but keeps his personal feelings and thoughts over policy and strategy extremely close to the vest. The 69-year-old McConnell is 20 years older than Obama and never developed much of a relationship with the president in his short time in the Senate.
“They’re incompatible,” one Democratic source said.
McConnell also turned off many Democrats when he said after last November’s elections that his main goal in this cycle is to defeat the president in 2012.
“He certainly is not someone who is playing a very constructive role in trying to solve the problems, that’s for sure,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a member of Democratic leadership. “I think you have to decide what your goals are, what your motivation is. I think the leader unfortunately indicated what his goal was back at the beginning of the year.”
Republicans believe it’s Obama who hasn’t taken Republicans seriously, saying that for the past two years, he ignored McConnell and tried to pick off a handful of Republicans to pass a partisan agenda, including the health care law. It wasn’t until it appeared Republicans were on their way to a landslide election victory in 2010 that Obama started reaching out to McConnell.
Asked if Obama and McConnell had a relationship, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the GOP policy chairman, said, “I don’t think they have much of one.”
Deciding not to deal with Republican leaders has been “to their detriment,” Thune said, adding that, “I think they paid a political price for that.”
In a recent breakfast briefing with reporters, McConnell said the phone calls between him and the president have picked up since the last election — and he said he doesn’t fault the president for not calling earlier.
“They had the numbers, they had the agenda and they didn’t need us,” McConnell said, referring to the last Congress when Democrats had huge majorities in both chambers. “There’s nothing personal about it.
“We get along fine; I like the president,” McConnell continued. “I particularly like the vice president for a long time. But it’s, frankly, just business. Now they need us, they didn’t before, we have a lot of interaction — a lot.”
White House officials dispute that they blew off McConnell before the 2010 elections and say there were frequent interactions over the past 21/2 years.
McConnell is actually closer to Biden, with whom he served in the Senate for 24 years, and that relationship holds out hope that there could still be a breakthrough — McConnell and Biden worked together on the deal to extend the Bush-era tax cuts last December.
Now, Democrats know they need some buy-in from McConnell to win some cover for a highly contentious vote with far-reaching implications for the budget, government programs and their parties. If McConnell’s conference doesn’t filibuster a debt ceiling hike, they could force 51 Democrats — several of whom are in tough races — to vote for increasing the national borrowing limit with no GOP support.
Obama has been working on his relationship with the other leading Republican in Congress — Speaker John Boehner. The two engaged in a much publicized golf match two weeks ago and worked closely during the April budget fight that averted a government shutdown.
Asked why Obama’s relationship with McConnell may be different, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said with a laugh, “Boehner plays golf.”
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