- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 4, 2010

For a minority party, the Republicans have dominated President Obama’s attention over the past few weeks as he uses every speaking engagement to poke holes in the GOP’s credibility.

Despite having just 178 of 435 votes in the House and 40 - soon to be 41 - of 100 in the Senate, Republicans have been Mr. Obama’s chief focus recently as he calls for bipartisanship, but slaps the GOP as unwilling to step up and help govern for the good of Americans.

Beginning with his State of the Union address last week, he laid down a challenge to Republicans and has repeated it nearly every day since: Now that they’re able to filibuster in the Senate, they have responsibility to share in governing the country.

“I told them, I want to work together when we can, and I meant it,” Mr. Obama said as he addressed Senate Democrats Wednesday. “But I also made it clear that we’ll call them out when they say they want to work with us, and we extend a hand and get a fist in return.”

Republicans, though, said the effort to switch pressure to the GOP is a “Hail Mary pass” aimed at reviving public support for Democrats after a wave of setbacks, including a stalled-out health care overhaul and the loss of their Senate supermajority.

“They promised change and to use the campaign phrase, ‘Yes, we can.’ Well, that’s changed to ‘No, you didn’t,’ and they’re trying to switch the narrative,” Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said, adding that Democrats took a very different approach in the days after the election.

“The Democrats seem to ignore the fact that when President Obama first sat down with the Republican leadership, he said verbatim: ‘Our party won, and you lost.’ And because they have not been able to achieve significant accomplishments over the last year, President Obama has chosen to reach his hand out insincerely to Republicans and offer them a seat at the table, while at the same time slapping their proposals as unworkable,” Mr. Bonjean said.

With the deficit and debt driving political discourse, Democrats are desperate to get Republicans to sign on to Mr. Obama’s proposed bipartisan fiscal panel. That would spread blame among both parties for tough choices like spending cuts or tax increases to balance the budget by the White House goal of 2015.

Last week, the Senate killed a proposal to establish a similar commission in law, which would give it binding authority, after seven Republicans who at one time co-sponsored the measure voted against it. That gave Mr. Obama an opening to portray Republicans as obstructionists.

If at least six of those seven Republicans had voted for it, the bipartisan bill would have passed with 60 votes, instead of failing with 53.

“They sign on to the bill. I say, ‘Great, good idea.’ I turn around; they’re gone. What happened?” Mr. Obama told a crowd Tuesday at a town hall in Nashua, N.H. “Look, it’s one thing to have an honest difference of opinion on something. There’s nothing wrong with that. But you can’t walk away from your responsibilities to confront the challenges facing the country because you don’t think it’s good short-term politics. We can’t afford that.”

Mr. Obama backed up his offer to hear Republican ideas with a promise in the State of the Union to schedule monthly bipartisan meetings at the White House with leaders from both chambers. The first such gathering is set for Tuesday.

By putting Republicans on the spot, Mr. Obama is daring them to do nothing, to play ball with him, or to come up with their own plans, which Democrats could then dismantle and use against them in the polls.

But Republican strategist Mike McKenna said that’s not likely.

“The reality is that the midterm elections are going to be a referendum on the ruling junta, not the minority party,” he said. “In a way, [Mr. Obama] might be helping Republicans by helping them think, ‘OK, what are we going to say here at the end of the day.’ ”

Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, last week punctured the Democrats’ ‘party of no’ label for Republicans when he reoffered his plan for entitlement reform with Mr. Obama during the president’s appearance at the House GOP retreat in Baltimore. While the White House’s budget shaves the annual deficit, it relies heavily on the yet-to-be created fiscal panel to solve the tougher questions; Mr. Ryan’s is currently the only legislation with a specific fix for the long-term fiscal crisis. But that hasn’t stopped critics like Mr. Obama from dismissing it as unworkable.

Mr. Ryan’s plan would preserve Social Security and Medicare for those 55 and older, but revamp the system for future retirees. Democrats, pivoting from ‘party of no,’ have now taken to blasting him for threatening precious entitlements for seniors - at the same time Mr. Obama is decrying Republican scare tactics aimed at seniors over the health care proposals.

Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan deficit watchdog, said Mr. Ryan deserves praise for putting forward a specific proposal to start the conversation. He said to solve the long-term deficit problem, though, both parties will have to become invested in the process.

“If you don’t have both political parties participating in the solution, the non-participating party has no stake in making the hard choices stick,” he said. “As soon as the other party gets the votes, they might undo it.”

For Democrats, last month’s loss of the U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts held for decades by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy explains why Democrats and Mr. Obama are focusing intently on forcing Republicans to the table.

“The filibuster-proof majority in the Senate is going to be gone in a couple of days, and he’s going to need to reach across the aisle,” said Sean Gibbons, a spokesman for progressive policy think tank Third Way.

Mr. Gibbons said that given the mood of the country, there’s another reason to reach for bipartisan agreements right now: “You need to have bipartisan support, because otherwise, there’s a belief that somehow the end goals are not good policy outcomes for the American people, but good political outcomes.”

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