President Obama continued his goodwill tour this week with stops at the Capitol to meet with House and Senate Republicans.
But despite the happy talk from Republicans—House Speaker John Boehner called Wednesday’s meeting “productive” and “a good start”—the president’s outreach to the GOP isn’t changing the party leadership’s strategy.
“He’s using us as props,” said one senior House GOP leadership aide. “I don’t expect anything to come out of this.”
There’s never been much trust between congressional Republicans and Obama, and after a White House official called the recent round of outreach “a joke,” there’s even less. Perhaps most telling, Senate and House Republican leadership aides say that there has been no outreach from the president’s aides.
“They think the lunch is a joke? The only thing that’s a joke is how they’ve approached Congress for the last four years,” said a senior Senate GOP aide.
Republicans intend to hold fast to their strategy of using the debt-limit increase this summer to force the president to cut entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. “Until he’s ready to have that conversation, we’re going to stay where we are,” the House aide said.
Wednesday’s meeting was the fourth time that Obama has met with House Republicans as a group, and Thursday’s lunch will be the second time the president has met with Senate Republicans since he was elected, GOP aides said.
“He’s coming over for a lunch. It’s a significant change. Does that filter down to his staff? We’ll see,” one Senate aide said. “The question will be, are they taking notes or snickering in the back?”
Indeed, many Republicans view Obama’s outreach primarily as a defensive media strategy designed to brandish his bipartisan bona fides after his failed campaign to undo across-the-board spending cuts preceded sinking approval numbers. One senior GOP aide said the meetings were “something they needed to do to cover their asses.”
The only conversations that worry Republicans in leadership, particularly those in the House, are the ones the president is having with moderate Senate Republicans.
History has proven that there is little chance that Obama and House Republicans can strike a deal. And they fear the president could find enough moderate Republicans to pass a Senate bill that would jam them. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled that he’s given his members leeway to have discussions with the president.
“My guess is all this outreach stuff, you don’t see any more of it after this week,” said a senior House leadership aide. “And to the extent it continues, it continues with Senate Republicans, the guys he knows.”
Republicans often complain that the president doesn’t follow his talk with action, a gripe that echoed after Obama’s meeting Wednesday with GOP House members.
“No new proposals, and that’s what I’ve come to expect after two years with this president,” said GOP Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas. “Nice fiery speeches, promises, but at the end of the day, there’s still trillion-dollar deficits and no plan to deal with them.”
While some described Wednesday’s 90-minute, closed-door meeting between Obama and House Republicans in the basement of the Capitol as candid—Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin called it “a very frank exchange”—other lawmakers seemed unsatisfied with the depth of what they heard.
“It seemed to me like a lot of his answers were like boilerplate,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.
Topics included the Keystone XL pipeline and immigration as well as budget and debt issues, including entitlement reform. The president even announced the news of a new pope being selected during the meeting.
There were some complaints and skepticism voiced by Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma, the Republican Policy Committee chairman, and others that Obama was more interested in campaigning with an eye to the 2014 midterm elections than in solving the nation’s problems.
But Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., said the president did offer to work on entitlement reform, and that “we need to take him up on the offer, and seize the moment.”
“It wasn’t like the prime minister appearing before the House of Commons,” said Dennis Ross, R-Fla., who was among those who said the discussion’s tone was respectful. But, he added, “You want to believe everything he said, but you also want to verify.”
Billy House, Tim Alberta, and Amy Harder contributed
This article appears in the March 14, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as GOP Will Stick by Its Strategy, Despite Obama.