Congressional Republicans find themselves on the receiving end of a White House charm offensive right now. Conversations with a new and popular president may keep even an out-of-power party newsworthy. But disagreeing on policy without being disagreeable in tone poses challenges for the GOP.
Wednesday night's vote on the economic stimulus bill was remarkably partisan: Not a single Republican voted for the bill, which passed anyway and is now headed for the Senate. But on the eve of the vote, President Obama seemed to expect more support from Republicans.
"We're not going to get 100 percent agreement, and we might not even get 50 percent agreement," he said.
In the end, of course, Obama got zero percent agreement. A popular president, an economic crisis and a lot of high-level schmoozing from the White House didn't move a single GOP member.
A coalition of outside pro-Democratic groups predicted dire consequences for the Republicans. "Political Suicide" was the headline on one e-mailed news release. But Rep. Jim Gerlach wasn't scared. And if there's a Republican who should be, it's him.
"My district is a Democrat district in southeastern Pennsylvania, and President Obama did very well there; he won 58, 59 percent," Gerlach said.
But Gerlach hasn't been getting pressure from his constituents. On the contrary, he says the calls and e-mails his office got about the latest economic stimulus bill were "about 3 or 4 to 1 against the bill."
Gerlach doesn't rule out supporting the final bill after it gets back from the Senate and a conference committee — if, he says, it includes more tax cuts for small businesses and more money for roads and bridges.
And Gerlach got some high-powered backing Thursday. Conservative economist Martin Feldstein — who gave the White House a big boost when he came out in favor of a huge stimulus — wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post on Thursday calling the bill as currently written an "$800 billion mistake."
And the man who used to run the House Republican campaign committee, former Rep. Tom Davis, sees absolutely no risk to Republicans who oppose this iteration of the bill.
"For the base, in terms of defining Republicans, a 'no' vote here allows you to go back to our old deficit hawk mantra," Davis said. "I don't think there's any downside in voting against that. They may take a little heat today because the polls say one thing, but I guarantee you, 18 months from now, public opinion will have moved somewhere else. And if this doesn't work, they're going to look like heroes."
In the Senate, the bill will change. There's always more bipartisanship there, where 60 votes are needed to break a filibuster. Already the White House is talking about ways the bill can be "strengthened" — to get more Republican votes.
And when it comes back to the House, some GOP members may get to have it both ways.
"I think there will be some members, particularly in states that are really hard-hit in the Northeast and the Midwest, may end up going along with it, can get bragging rights for this if appropriate modifications are made," Davis said.
For now, the Republican strategy is to praise President Obama and aim their fire at the House Democratic leadership.
"It was very impressive that he came to the Congress and met with us. He was certainly very forthright," said Michigan Republican Dave Camp. "But this is Nancy Pelosi's bill — no input from Republicans, no meetings, no amendments accepted in committee."
All that praise for the president isn't just political spin — it's sincere, Davis said. Obama could end up being more personally popular among House Republicans than his predecessor.
"After Bush, Obama is a breath of fresh air. He's going to do more entertainment of Republican members, and not just leaders — rank-and-file — over the next two or three weeks than Bush probably did in a year," Davis said.
As for long-term political calculations, both sides appear to be acting according to their interests. Obama gets a lot of points from the public for trying so hard to change the tone and a lot of goodwill from Republicans for reaching out, and that should help him on future big battles.
Unlike the stimulus, which involves the relatively easy tasks of spending a lot of money and cutting taxes, what comes next — health care, energy and entitlement reform — requires hard political choices and will need big bipartisan support to succeed.
Meanwhile, Republicans in the House reaffirm their principles, reassure their base and get positioned for the next debate. If Republicans said no to everything every step of the way, they could be vulnerable. But no one expects that to happen, as both sides — the president and the congressional minority — settle in to their new roles in the unfamiliar world of civilized partisan warfare.