WASHINGTON (AP) — If President Barack Obama thought having a private lunch with Republican senators would ease partisan tensions in Congress, he grabbed the wrong recipe.
The president walked into a remarkably contentious 80-minute session Tuesday in which GOP senators accused him of duplicity, audacity and unbending partisanship. Lawmakers said the testy exchange left legislative logjams intact, and one GOP leader said nothing is likely to change before the November elections.
Obama’s sharpest accuser was Bob Corker of Tennessee, a first-term senator who feels the administration undermined his efforts to craft a bipartisan financial regulation bill.
“I told him I thought there was a degree of audacity in him even showing up today after what happened with financial regulation,” Corker told reporters, with perhaps a dig at Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope.”
“I just wanted him to tell me how, when he wakes up in the morning, comes over to a luncheon like ours today, how does he reconcile that duplicity?”
Four people who were in the room said Obama bristled and defended his administration’s handling of negotiations. On the way out, Corker said, Obama approached him and both men repeated their main points.
“I told him there was a tremendous disconnect from his words and the actions of his administration,” Corker said.
White House spokesman Bill Burton, who attended the session in the Capitol, said the exchange “was actually pretty civil.”
The senators applauded Obama, who had requested the luncheon, when he entered and left the room. Obama told reporters as he departed, “It was a good, frank discussion about a whole range of issues.”
Some Republicans were less kind.
“He needs to take a Valium before he comes in and talks to Republicans,” Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told reporters. “He’s pretty thin-skinned.”
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said he addressed Obama, “trying to demand overdue action” on the giant oil spill damaging Gulf coast states. He said got “no specific response” except Obama’s pledge to have an authoritative White House official call him within hours.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Obama’s 2008 presidential opponent, said he pressed the president on immigration issues. McCain said he told Obama “we need to secure the border first” before taking other steps. “The president didn’t agree,” he said.
Later, McCain said his views were unchanged by Obama’s decision to send an additional 1,200 National Guard troops to boost security along the U.S.-Mexico border.
At the lunch, McCain said he defended his state’s pending immigration law, which Obama says could lead to discrimination. It directs police, when questioning people about possible law violations, to ask about their immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” they’re in the country illegally.
At the luncheon, McCain said, “I pointed out that members of his administration who have not read the law have mischaracterized the law — a very egregious act on their part.”
Burton said Obama told McCain that he has read the Arizona law himself, and his concerns remain.
After the luncheon, no one suggested the two parties were even a smidgen closer to resolving differences over energy, immigration and other issues that Obama has said he wants to act on this year.
“We simply have a large difference of opinion that’s not likely to be settled until November about taxes, spending and the debt,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
Senators said the November elections — all 435 House seats, 36 Senate seats and another three dozen governors’ seats are up for grabs — were not overtly mentioned. But they were an unmistakable backdrop.
Republicans hope for big gains, maybe even control of the House. They are banking on voter resentment of Obama initiatives such as the new health care law, and many see little point in cooperating with Obama and Democratic lawmakers at this point.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., complained to Obama about the partisan genesis of the health care law, enacted without a single Republican vote in Congress. Administration aides repeatedly have said GOP input was welcome, but none within reason turned up.
It’s hard to know if Obama genuinely thought his luncheon visit would melt some of the partisan iciness. Several Republican senators and aides in the room said he seemed to be going through the motions, not making real efforts at consensus.
“What’s really important is not so much the symbolism of bipartisanship as it is the action of bipartisanship,” Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told reporters later.
Citing the scant or zero Republican support for the health care law, financial regulation bill and last year’s financial stimulus, Thune said, “What we haven’t seen is sort of the matchup between the rhetoric and the actions to follow through.”
As the Senate wrapped up its business Tuesday, Obama was flying to California to headline a fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer, one of Congress’ most liberal members and a top GOP target this fall.
Associated Press writers Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Laurie Kellman, Jim Kuhnhenn, Julie Pace and Erica Werner contributed to this report.