President Obama may be taking a tougher line in public against Republicans who seek to block everything he does. He may be calling out members of Congress who voted against the stimulus bill but happily touted the federal dollars in their own states and districts.
But the man who pledged to unite red and blue America hasn’t stopped trying to find a handful of Republicans he can work with to help pass landmark legislation in his second year.
“We’ve had a lot of success with Republican governors because they want to have the stimulus dollars,” said one senior aide.
So, as he prepares for a health-care summit aimed at picking off at least a few GOP votes later this week, who are the Republicans the White House really believes it can work with? Who are the ones Obama and his team really like—the only ones they can actually stand?
Obama’s aides say the GOP governors show how Republicans can and have worked with the White House in their first year. “We’ve had a lot of success with Republican governors because they want to have the stimulus dollars,” said one senior aide. “It’s not like the Republican members of Congress who don’t like it when they’re in Washington but go back home and love all the dollars being spent in their districts. The governors are one of our more successful alliances.”
The partnerships have been harder to come by on Capitol Hill. And in that regard, Obama has a lot in common with his predecessor. Before his election as president, Gov. George W. Bush had forged a fruitful partnership in Austin with Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, who often urged members of the state legislature to check their partisan affiliation at the door. Bush talked a lot about the Bullock model when he first arrived in Washington, but he struggled to find someone to fit the bill.
Obama’s had similar problems. And the 2008 campaign helped rob him of the logical choice. John McCain used to be the go-to Senate Republican for across-the-aisle dealmaking. But McCain cashiered his maverick side during his presidential run—shifting to the right—and any inkling he might have about returning to his old ways has been snuffed out by the hard-right primary challenge he’s facing this fall from former Arizona Rep. J.D. Hayworth.
Ironically, the White House sees as one of the brightest prospects for bipartisan business Scott Brown—the newly elected Massachusetts Republican, who scored an upset in the race to replace the late Edward M. Kennedy. Brown hails from a state that Obama won handily in 2008, and he knows the dangers in getting pulled too far to the right in liberal Massachusetts. He’s up for reelection to a full Senate term in 2012. And he’s supported a state version of health-care reform not all that unlike the bill Obama wants to pass. “You can imagine it’s in his interests to find some compromise,” said one senior Obama aide. “If he wants it, he can create a nice health-care profile for himself, not least because he voted for it in the Massachusetts Senate.”
Who else in the congressional Republican caucus does the White House think it can play ball with? For clues, look to the list of GOP retirements.
White House officials believe this group is the least susceptible to pressure from the right—since they no longer have to worry about primary challenges, the Tea Party factor, or the ravages of Fox News. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire—Obama’s first pick for Commerce Secretary—remains a prime, if unreliable, target. Based on his own withdrawal from the Commerce job, the White House remains intrigued by, but wary of, the notion of finding common ground. Gregg was a leading advocate for the bipartisan fiscal responsibility commission that failed to muster enough votes from his fellow GOP co-sponsors. He has also said he wanted to be “helpful” on finding a deal to save health-care reform.
“He’s not running for reelection so it’s a little easier for him,” said one senior White House official. “But I think the sense is that before people believe him, he would have to do something in terms of being a little more specific about what we would be willing to support. These are the sorts of conversations that have to happen in private, and the president has made it clear that his door is open.”
George Voinovich of Ohio is another retiring GOP senator with a strong reputation for fiscal discipline, who could fit into the Gregg mold. A third retiree—Kit Bond of Missouri—has proven less helpful, at least on one front; he’s been a tough critic of the administration’s handling of the Christmas Day bomber. Bond’s outspoken criticism places him alongside another potential swing vote, who has also attacked the White House for its approach to Abdulmuttalab: Susan Collins of Maine. Neither seems to offer much hope for compromise at this time.
White House officials remain more hopeful that Collins’ fellow Republican from Maine, Olympia Snowe, could cross the aisle on a number of issues, even though Snowe failed to agree a compromise on health-care reform.
Another category of GOP senators the White House is targeting: potential dealmakers who could bring other Republicans on board. Among them, Chuck Grassley of Iowa remains a contender, even after waiting for precious months for him to deliver on health-care reform last summer. Some inside the White House believe Grassley may shift back into a more reasonable position after the filing deadline for his primary next month—as long as he doesn’t wind up with a conservative who challenges him from the right.
Another potential dealmaker could be Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, if she decides to retire from the Senate after her bid for the Texas governorship—which she’s widely believed to be losing—has run its course this fall.
Perhaps it says something about the state of gridlock on Capitol Hill that Obama's favorite Republicans are the ones who don’t work in Washington. At the annual Governor’s Ball, held at the White House Sunday, Obama singled out Vermont GOP Gov. Jim Douglas, chairman of the National Governors Association, as “an extraordinary partner” of his administration. Today, he’ll have a one-on-one with another statehouse favorite: Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. “One of the things I’ve always said about governors that Washington could learn from is that it’s hard to be overly ideological as governor,” Obama said. “Because the fact of the matter is, the rubber hits the road with you.”
Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.