- The Washington Times - Monday, January 12, 2015

When President Obama hosts congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday, he will face a new balance of power in the Senate under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a lawmaker with whom the president has never enjoyed a good relationship.

Mr. Obama needs the Kentucky Republican if he is going to achieve any significant legislative victories during his final two years in office. But ever since Mr. Obama arrived in Washington as a senator in 2005, the two men have lacked a meaningful rapport, say those who have observed the two at close range.

The president and his aides have said more than once that Mr. Obama will try to break the ice by hosting Mr. McConnell for a “bourbon summit” at the White House sometime soon, in addition to Tuesday’s meeting. But a former Senate Republican leadership aide scoffed that it wouldn’t do any good.

“That’s mostly talk,” he said. “I don’t think either McConnell or the president have the personality set to sit down, shoot the sh— and have drinks. It doesn’t appear to be in either of their DNA.”

Few in Washington have forgotten Mr. Obama’s joke at the 2013 White House Correspondents’ Dinner that seemed to sum up his arm’s-length relationship with Mr. McConnell.

“Some folks still think I don’t spend enough time with Congress,” the president said at the time. “‘Why don’t you have a drink with Mitch McConnell?’ they ask. Really? Why don’t YOU get a drink with Mitch McConnell.”

Nor has the White House forgotten Mr. McConnell’s famous declaration during an interview in 2010 that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Mr. Obama will be having “more frequent conversations” with Mr. McConnell because of his new role as majority leader.

“The president’s looking forward to a robust, constructive discussion on those areas where we do agree,” Mr. Earnest said Monday. “They do exist, and the president’s looking forward to talking about them.”

He said the president and Republican leaders in Congress will need to compromise to make progress for the nation.

“That doesn’t require any charm,” Mr. Earnest said last week. “That just requires a willingness on both sides to try to meet in the middle, to try to find some common ground and compromise and move the country forward.”

The president and the Republican-controlled Congress are headed toward early veto showdowns over the Keystone XL oil pipeline and a bill that would alter Obamacare’s definition of a full-time job. But the president and Mr. McConnell have said they hope to work together on free trade, tax reform and infrastructure projects.

Mr. McConnell started off the year with a tactic that observers say is likely to cause more friction with the White House: urging Mr. Obama in a speech to “accept reality” and ignore his liberal base to work with Republicans more often.

“The president is the only one who can bring his party onboard,” Mr. McConnell said. “The president’s supporters are pressing for militancy these days, not compromise. We’re calling on the president to ignore the voices of reaction and join us.”

The former Senate aide described Mr. McConnell’s relationship with the president as “cordial, but not much more than that.”

It’s one reason that some observers believe Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who served with Mr. McConnell in the Senate for 24 years, will be more instrumental than the president this year in trying to forge any deals with Republican leaders.

“There’s a reason why, whenever there’s been a need to actually have a negotiation with repeated back-and-forth, it’s been the vice president who’s been the point man,” the former Republican aide said. “The relationship [with Mr. McConnell] is better. It’s not that they are particularly close, but they are of the same ilk. They enjoy politics, they enjoy political strategy, they’re good at it. They understand each other and they understand the rules of the road of a negotiation. They know how to talk to each other. And they both have a history of getting stuff done.”

When Mr. Biden presided at the swearing-in of senators last week, he shared a brief moment of male bonding with Mr. McConnell. As the majority leader was posing for a photograph with his family and Mr. Biden on the Senate floor, Mr. McConnell’s wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao, clearly took charge of organizing the group, calling out suggestions to arrange the photo.

“Madame Secretary, whatever you say,” Mr. Biden said.

“You know how it works, Joe,” Mr. McConnell said.

“I do. Are you kidding me?” Mr. Biden replied.

Aides can’t recall Mr. Obama working with Mr. McConnell on any significant legislation during his brief tenure in the Senate before announcing his candidacy for president in 2007 and devoting more time to the campaign trail.

In the House, Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, isn’t on chummy terms with the president, either. The two share a love of golf, but they have not played together since contentious budget negotiations in 2011.

The president once said of Mr. Boehner that golf was “the only thing he doesn’t criticize me about.”

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