President Obama went to the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday for what appeared to be an attempt at some fence-mending, joining Senate Republicans for a private meeting. Afterward, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the session "spirited," and other GOP senators described sharp exchanges with the president.
President Obama went to the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday for what appeared to be an attempt at some fence-mending. At his request, the president joined Senate Republicans for their weekly noon policy luncheon.
But some of Obama's recent legislative victories in the Senate on overhauling health care and financial rules clearly left some Republicans with hard feelings.
After the closed-door, hourlong session with the president, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the exchange of views that took place "spirited." The president himself described it as "a good, frank discussion."
But Kansas Republican Sam Brownback had another word to describe it: "testy."
Brownback reported that the president told Republicans he's under pressure from those on his left, but the Kansas Republican said that failed to mollify his GOP colleagues.
"It's, you know, 'OK, we want to be bipartisan, but I want it as hard, far left as you can get it through the Senate.' And that's not a bipartisan approach," Brownback said.
The sharpest exchange was reported to have been between the president and Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, who voted against the financial overhaul bill after having given up trying to reach a bipartisan consensus on it. Corker says he actually accused the president of duplicity.
"I just found it pretty audacious that he would be here today as we move into election season, using Republican senators as a prop to talk about bipartisanship," Corker said. "And obviously it hit a nerve with him."
According to those present, Obama also stressed that he wanted Congress to take up a comprehensive immigration bill this year. South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham told him it's not going to happen.
"My message to the president is the way you move forward is that you focus like a laser on border security, with a commitment that you're going to do more, but you have to get that solidified first," he said.
Democrats are wary of a push by Graham and other Republicans to pass measures that only address border security; their concern is that doing so could remove incentives to support a broader immigration bill that would include border security.
It may well have been to head off GOP moves that the White House on Tuesday added 1,200 National Guardsmen for the border and $500 million in funding. But Arizona Republican John McCain wanted more.
"I appreciate the additional 1,200 being sent of the Guard, as well as an additional $500 million, but it's simply not enough," he said. "We need 6,000 -- we need 3,000 across the border and an additional 3,000 National Guard troops to the Arizona-Mexico border."
McCain then offered an amendment to immediately send 6,000 troops to the border. He did so on an emergency bill the Senate is debating that is mainly to fund the 30,000 additional troops being sent to Afghanistan.
Republicans support that policy, but Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold does not. He offered an amendment that would require a flexible timeline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan. He said it's the wrong time to be doubling down on those troops.
"I've been clear from Day 1: It's a mistake. It is the wrong approach to a problem that is principally in other places, such as Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Everyone knows the history of this region; everyone knows where al-Qaida's really based. The notion of putting this huge ground commitment in Afghanistan doesn't make any sense at all."
With other Senate Democrats also supporting Feingold's measure, it was a day when Obama felt the sting of dissent from both sides of the aisle.
Copyright 2010 National Public Radio.
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