Obama And Top Republicans Struggle To Find Common Ground

A year ago, newly re-elected President Obama got promises of cooperation from chastened GOP congressional leaders. Since then, Senate Republicans have delivered on some key issues. Ditto for the GOP-led House, at least initially. Then came the partial government shutdown.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.

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And I'm Renee Montagne. It was a year ago today that Republican leaders sent congratulations to the Democratic president, who had just won re-election. They promised cooperation with President Obama and Democrats in Congress. Since then, on some key issues Republicans in the Senate and the House aren't cooperating all that well with each other.

As NPR's David Welna reports, the minority party's paths have diverged since failing to take back the White House and the Senate.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Early in the morning last Nov. 7, President Obama assured supporters in Chicago celebrating his re-election that they had voted for action, not politics as usual.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together.

WELNA: An hour later, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement saying to the extent Obama moved to the political center, Republicans would be there to meet him halfway. Later that day, House Speaker John Boehner would proffer his own olive branch.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Let's challenge ourselves to find the common ground that has eluded us. Let's rise above the dysfunction and do the right thing together for our country.

WELNA: Those same two GOP leaders would soon agree to a deal avoiding the fiscal cliff, even though it meant higher taxes for the wealthiest. They also let the Violence Against Women Act, which they'd earlier resisted, win reauthorization. Soon after, in a post-election autopsy report, party leaders urged a softer tone and more outreach to women, gays and other minorities. They also backed an immigration overhaul to help mend fences with Latinos.

Here's Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus.

REINCE PRIEBUS: I'm not saying something that the majority of our party hasn't already been on the record agreeing with.

WELNA: A sweeping immigration bill did pass the Senate with significant GOP support. But in the House, Tea Party Republicans were angered by their leaders' concessions. At about the time the GOP autopsy report came out, a new Tea Party senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, offered a plan that appealed to them.

SEN. TED CRUZ: The purpose of this amendment is to advance economic growth, and in particular to delay funding of ObamaCare until economic growth returns.

WELNA: That same day, on Fox News Radio, Speaker Boehner rejected Cruz's proposal.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

BOEHNER: Our goal is to cut spending, not to shut down the government. And if we were to put ObamaCare into the CR and send it over to the Senate, we were risking shutting down the government.

WELNA: Which is exactly what happened once Boehner eventually gave in to demands from his Tea Party-aligned members. He later defended his about-face on ABC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABC NEWS BROADCAST)

BOEHNER: I and my members decided that the threat of ObamaCare and what was happening was so important that it was time for us to take a stand.

WELNA: Maryland House Democrat Chris Van Hollen says by caving to the Tea Party caucus, Boehner walked into a trap.

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: The speaker has thought from time to time if you just feed the beast from time to time, they'll be satisfied. But this is a beast that the more it's fed, the bigger and stronger and more demanding it gets.

WELNA: Senate Republican Leader McConnell, for his part, helped devise the deal that re-opened the government and averted a debt default. He assured CBS that episode won't be repeated.

(SOUNDBITE OF CBS NEWS BROADCAST)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: A number of us were saying back in July that this strategy could not and would not work. And of course, it didn't. So there'll not be another government shutdown, you can count on that.

WELNA: Nothing in the GOP's election autopsy called for anything even close to a shutdown. The party had already been burned by that tactic during the Clinton administration.

University of California, San Diego congressional expert Gary Jacobson says that unlike Boehner, McConnell's overriding concern is holding onto or winning over more than congressional districts.

GARY JACOBSON: He is one of the nationally-oriented Republicans who worries about the national position of the party, trying to win control of the Senate, trying to win presidential elections, and realizes the party has to show it has some capacity to participate in government.

WELNA: If it's to rekindle hopes that were dashed one year ago for retaking the reins of power.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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