Buds of skepticism on Obama’s olive branch

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Republicans on Sunday said they welcome the White House’s new “charm offensive” — even if they are skeptical of the motives behind President Obama’s renewed effort to schmooze with some of his administration’s harshest critics.

Having lost the argument with congressional Republicans over automatic budget cuts, Mr. Obama will visit Capitol Hill this week for rare meetings with some of them.

The president unveiled his tactic last week by dining with a dozen Senate Republicans as he seeks cooperation on issues such as raising more tax revenue and reforming immigration laws.

But Republican lawmakers say that rebuilding a productive relationship between the White House and Congress will take action, not words, after the president spent months blaming the GOP for the mess in Washington.

“I think he’s genuinely reaching out,” Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” but “you’ve got a lot of scabs and sores on people. That’s going to take awhile for that to heal.”

Other Republicans are even more skeptical.

“Time will tell whether the president’s attempt to rebuild relations — or in many cases to build relationships with Congress for the first time — is truly genuine,” second-term Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado said on “Meet the Press.”

“But the last time that we witnessed Paul Ryan be invited to a speech that the president was giving before the American public, he then turned around and chastised him. The last time we went over to the White House, the president lectured us. I hope that he’s genuine. But I don’t think we’re going to be doing the ‘Harlem Shake’ anytime soon together.”

A 2014-based strategy?

It hasn’t escaped Republicans’ attention that Mr. Obama, on the night of his re-election in November, called House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, even before he delivered his victory speech to the nation. The purpose of the calls was to discuss plans to win back the House two years hence and make Mrs. Pelosi the speaker again.

Mr. Ryan, who had lunch with Mr. Obama and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, at the White House on Thursday, said the answer to whether any major compromises can be struck will depend on whether Mr. Obama continues that tack in the coming weeks and months.

“Will he resume the campaign mode? Will he resume attacking Republicans and impugning our motives? Will he resume what is long believed to be a plan to win the 2014 elections?” the Wisconsin Republican and House Budget Committee Chairman said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Or will he sincerely change and try and find common ground, try and work with Republicans to get something done? That’s what we hope happens.”

Mr. Ryan and other Republicans also know that Mr. Obama’s former campaign team is operating a big-money advocacy group called Organizing for Action, building grass-roots support for Obama initiatives such as gun control, blaming Republicans for the so-called sequester budget cuts and targeting individual lawmakers for public pressure on a variety of issues. The Democratic National Committee also is sending out daily emails that blame individual House Republicans, many of whom are on the list of potentially vulnerable candidates in 2014, for the service cuts that Democrats warn will result from the sequester.

Still landing punches

White House aides, defending Mr. Obama’s carrot-and-stick approach, say House Republican leaders, not the president, are guilty of failing to compromise on budget and tax issues. White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president has no plans to change his tone, in spite of his recent efforts to hear out Republican lawmakers.

“He’ll continue to speak clearly about what his priorities are,” Mr. Carney said. “He will make clear that, for example, we’re disappointed at the choices made by Republicans to allow the so-called sequester to take effect, with all of the negative consequences that result, but he also believes we can move forward and try to adjust these other challenges.”

That line of attack played out Sunday, with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, accusing Republicans, including Sen. Ron Johnson, of openly pulling for the economy to fail, for which Mr. Obama would presumably take the blame.

“Our friends [on] the other side of the aisle, unfortunately, like the senator, continue to root for our economy to not be going in the right direction,” the Florida Democrat said on ABC’s “This Week.”

“Absolutely not,” Mr. Johnson, seated immediately adjacent to Ms. Wasserman Schultz, shot back.

Treacherous ground for some

The “carrot” portion of the president’s strategy presents potent political risks — especially for moderate House Republicans, who are more likely than their colleagues on the right to vote with Mr. Obama on a given issue but are also some of the prime targets for defeat by Democrats in their push to take over the chamber next year.

Of the 33 House Republicans ranked as “potentially vulnerable” by political analyst Larry Sabato, 14 are considered moderate or centrist in their voting records. Only four of the lawmakers on the list are members of the tea party, which the administration singles out for most of its criticisms.

Rep. Charles W. Dent, a fifth-term lawmaker from Pennsylvania who voted with the administration on the “fiscal cliff” deal and on disaster aid for victims of Superstorm Sandy, said Mr. Obama can’t afford to alienate moderates if he is sincere about seeking compromise.

“Many of the people who are going to be targeted by the president and the House Democratic campaign committee are going to be members in marginal districts, people who in most cases are more apt to find common ground and seek compromise,” Mr. Dent said.

“We’re going to have to determine if the president is more intent on getting a big political victory in the midterm, or actually trying to collaborate and seek agreements on major legislative issues between now and 2014. That question hasn’t yet been answered.”

He said Republicans likely would be receptive to some of the president’s initiatives, such as Mr. Obama’s proposal in the State of the Union address to form a trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership with Europe.

“I think the president has to make a choice: Does he really want to govern over these next two years, or does he want to wage a perpetual campaign?” Mr. Dent said. “If he wants to cement his legacy, he’s going to have to work very hard to do it over these next two years.”

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