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When President Obama first campaigned for the White House, he promised to change the tone in Washington, but that tone has remained pretty nasty. As part of our Parallel Lives series about the two men running for president, we're exploring the struggles with their respective legislatures. We heard last week about Mitt Romney's time as Massachusetts's governor.
Today, NPR's David Welna reports on President Obama's relationship with Congress.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: On the steps of the U.S. Capitol, the day he was sworn into office, President Obama proclaimed a new era of bipartisan cooperation.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them; that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.
WELNA: The new president demanded bold and swift action to fix a battered economy. Eight days later, the Democratic-led House approved an $825 billion stimulus package without a single Republican voting for it.
SENATOR OLYMPIA SNOWE: Everything got off on the wrong foot, essentially.
WELNA: That's Senator Olympia Snowe. This moderate from Maine who was one of the few Republicans the president lobbied on the stimulus. It would have helped, she says, had the president widened his outreach.
SNOWE: But that, for some reason, never really occurred. I mean, I don't know if the outreach didn't occur on the part of the White House, or they just decided to try to secure enough votes to get it through the United States Senate with the 60-vote requirement.
WELNA: It took the votes of Snowe and two other moderate Republicans to reach that 60-vote threshold, and only after Democrats agreed to shrink the package by $38 billion.
Dick Durbin was the Senate Democrat in charge of rounding up votes on the stimulus. He says most Republicans had no interest in helping the bill move forward.
SENATOR DICK DURBIN: I don't think they wanted the president to have any success at this. And the net result of it was the recession went on for longer than it should've.
WELNA: President Obama did, in fact, reach out on other matters to many of his former GOP Senate colleagues, including the man he beat in the presidential race, Arizona's John McCain. But McCain says there was no follow-through.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: After the election, I was invited over to the White House with a large number of congressmen and senators on the issue of immigration reform. I pledged that I would work with them - never heard from them again.
WELNA: And some of Obama's national security decisions proved too much even for members of his own party. In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Obama declared a new approach to overcoming extremism based on American values.
OBAMA: That is why I have ordered the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and will seek swift and certain justice for captured terrorists.
WELNA: Despite the applause, Senate Democrats later stripped the defense bill of the money the president had requested for shutting down GITMO. The Senate also voted 90-to-6 to bar the transfer of the facility's inmates to U.S. prisons.
Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid explained why.
SENATOR HARRY REID: The United States Senate, the Democrats and Republicans, do not want terrorists to be released in the United States. That's very clear.
WELNA: A month later, just as Mitt Romney had done as governor of Massachusetts, President Obama pushed Congress for legislation vastly expanding health care coverage. He announced his intention to do so a year and a half earlier, the night he won the Iowa caucuses. Here's how he promised to do it.
OBAMA: By bringing Democrats and Republicans together to get the job done.
WELNA: But once again, Republicans balked at the president's plans. He tried rallying support for his health care bill in an address to Congress in September 2009, only to have South Carolina House Republican Joe Wilson publicly accuse him of lying.
OBAMA: The reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.
REPRESENTATIVE JOE WILSON: You lie.
(SOUNDBITE OF MURMURING)
WELNA: In the end, not one Republican in Congress voted for the final health care bill. Presidential and congressional scholar George Edwards of Texas A&M says Mr. Obama essentially gave up on the Republicans.
GEORGE EDWARDS: The president spent a lot of time negotiating with Republicans to try to get bipartisan support, but he couldn't achieve that. And ultimately, he did what is necessary in these days, and that is you, in effect, ram things through on a partisan vote.
WELNA: Republicans ran against the health care law and won control of the House in midterm elections; they picked up half a dozen seats in the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell then issued his fellow Republicans these marching orders.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term.
WELNA: After a market-rattling showdown with Republicans over raising the debt ceiling last summer, Mr. Obama effectively declared no more Mr. Nice Guy. His courting of Congress now sounds more like taunting. Here's the president recently at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.
OBAMA: You're not suddenly just sitting around, not doing anything.
OBAMA: You should expect the same thing from your representatives in Washington.
WELNA: Oklahoma House Republican Tom Cole says President Obama has decided running against Congress beats running on his record.
REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE: The fact that the president is not able to run for re-election on what he would regard as his two biggest accomplishments, the stimulus and health care, because they're still unpopular, suggests again if he wants to get something done, he's going to have to find a way to move toward the middle.
WELNA: But as this president has learned, the middle is a place where little gets done, at least in this deeply divided Congress.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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