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White House / ANALYSIS

A Delicate Dance as Republicans, President Balance Confrontation, Cooperation

The November 18 dinner will be a signal moment

House Minority Leader John Boehner arrives for a press conference with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday.(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

photo of Matthew Cooper
November 4, 2010

If voters thought their ballots were sending a message to Washington politicians to work together, they may be disappointed by what’s happening. Already, the claims of cooperation and bonhomie seem to ring hollow as each side girds for combat.

On one hand, President Obama waxed cooperative on Thursday. The president, who once derided Republicans for “sipping on a Slurpee” while he tried to dig the economy out of a ditch, has invited congressional leaders to the White House on November 18, after he returns from Asia. And he’s hinted that he’s ready to change his tone.

Earlier this morning, as he met with his Cabinet, Obama discussed the dinner. “This is going to be a meeting in which I want us to talk substantively about how we can move the American people’s agenda forward,” Obama told reporters after a Cabinet meeting. When asked if the dinner would be working or social, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said “both.” Gibbs added at a later briefing: “When you have people in a room long enough they find things they can agree on.”

 

But already there are signs that what little is left of the let’s-all-work-together spirit that came out of the election may be evaporating.

In a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation this morning, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., underscored his controversial remarks that his highest priority is to make Obama a one-term president.

“Over the past week, some have said it was indelicate of me to suggest that our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term in office,” McConnell said. “But the fact is, if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill, to end the bailouts, cut spending, and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things is to put someone in the White House who won’t veto any of these things.”

McConnell’s tone was combative at times. ”It doesn’t take a roomful of political scientists to figure it out. Americans voted for change in the last two elections because of two long and difficult wars and because they hoped a changing of the guard would stabilize the economy and get America moving again. And then the people they elected set about dismantling the free market, handing out political favors at taxpayer expense, expanding government, and creating a more precarious future for our children. In other words, Democrat leaders used the crisis of the moment to advance an agenda Americans didn’t ask for and couldn’t afford. And then they ignored and dismissed anyone who dared to speak out against it.”

He vowed to put repeal of Obama’s health care measure up for a vote.

For his part, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, the putative House speaker, has kept a more measured tone. He avoided high-profile speeches on Thursday, choosing instead to reissue five of his speeches as a small book. In an interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC News Boehner took a light hearted tone saying he didn't know about a Slurpee at dinner with Obama but asked, "How about a glass of Merlot?

Why the difference in tone between Boehner and McConnell? They may be from neighboring states—Ohio and Kentucky—and have similar mainstream, conservative politics, but they have very different jobs.

Boehner’s position will be speaker of the House—a constitutional office, third in line to the presidency, that requires management of the entire chamber, both Democrats and Republicans. He’s still a partisan, but that partisanship is somewhat restrained by the speaker’s gavel. Plus, Boehner’s in the majority—by a significant margin—and can afford to be magnanimous.

McConnell is in the minority and is, not surprisingly, more edgy. Having favored the primary opponent of Kentucky’s incoming Republican senator, tea party favorite Rand Paul, McConnell is under particular pressure to show he’s not being soft on Obama. Indeed, running the Senate is, in the words of former Republican Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, like “herding cats,” so tough words help McConnell rally his conference.

Other members of the leadership will attend the dinner, including outgoing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; the second-ranking leaders of each party in the House, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va.; and their contemporaries in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., will attend, as well as McConnell and Boehner.

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