WASHINGTON (AP) — Winners by far in last fall’s elections, Republicans now demand bipartisanship from President Barack Obama as their due and the voters’ desire.
They saw things far differently when the political fortunes were reversed six years ago.
Then, with the president newly in office and the economy cratering, minority Republicans overwhelmingly opposed Obama’s stimulus legislation and voted unanimously against the health care overhaul for which he had campaigned.
“We can’t buy prosperity with more and more government spending,” Rep. John Boehner, then the Republican leader and now the speaker, said as Obama and Democrats pressed for both tax cuts and budget increases to revive an economy shedding jobs at an alarming rate.
As for health care, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, “I think that, for virtually every Republican, a government plan is a nonstarter.” He worked effectively behind the scenes for months to prevent any defections from his rank and file that might produce a semblance of bipartisanship.
At the time, with Democrats in charge of the government, Republicans had no purely political stake in a quick recovery from the worst economic meltdown in more than half a century, much less in helping Obama achieve a top domestic priority. Instead, they sought a way to rally their dispirited lawmakers and voters and lay the groundwork for future electoral victories when public opinion turned.
Now, the Republicans’ core political imperative is different.
In control of the Senate for the first time in eight years and owners of their strongest House majority in decades, they hope to shed the political taint of past government shutdowns, fiscal cliffs and flirtation with default, and emerge as a responsible governing party.
“Serious adults are in charge here and we intend to make progress,” McConnell, now the majority leader, said late last year as he and Republicans prepared to take the Senate’s reins.
For starters, they are intent on challenging Obama’s policy of removing the threat of deportation the millions of immigrants who are living in the country illegally. But the GOP says its determination will not result in any shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security.
Tea party voters and their allies in Congress may disagree, but compromise never has been their rallying cry.
Besides, McConnell and the party establishment waged a campaign against tea party-backed insurgents in primaries last spring that was every bit as energetic as the one against the Democrats in the fall — and every bit as successful.
Now, a chorus of Republicans lectures Obama that the voters have spoken and he should listen in a way they did not.
“Just a couple of months ago the president said his policies were on the ballot. And they were resoundingly rejected,” the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, said of last fall’s campaign in which the GOP gained nine Senate seats and their majority.
“The president seems defiant,” he added after Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, when he repeatedly threatened to veto Republican legislative priorities and challenged Congress to accept his own.
Just as Boehner, R-Ohio, and McConnell once sought to rally their party after election defeats, Obama’s televised prime-time speech seemed aimed at steadying Democrats in Congress and around the country after last fall’s election drubbing.
Referring to House-passed measures to build the Keystone XL Pipeline, erode the health care law and roll back regulations on Wall Street, the president said, “If a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, it will earn my veto.” Democratic lawmakers listening in the House applauded; Republicans sat on their hands.
His administration’s list of veto threats includes eight measures and extends to abortion, government regulation and natural gas pipeline licensing as well as Keystone, health care and the financial industry. It surely will grow as Republicans try to make good on their promises to cut federal rules, rein in the Environmental Protection Agency and remake government benefit programs as part of an attempt to balance the budget in a decade.
Democrats no doubt have the votes to sustain Obama’s vetoes.
Besides, the public mood that resulted in a big Republican victory last fall now shows signs of a shift. Obama’s approval ratings are edging upward in some surveys and reached 50 percent, the highest level in more than a year, in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Polls regularly show the public is eager for political leaders to work together, but the public leans toward a Republican point of view on some issues and a Democratic point of view on others. The Washington Post-ABC News survey found that the public said Republicans have better ideas than the president for encouraging economic development, but preferred Obama over the GOP on steps to help the middle class.
Bipartisanship is a national goal, but no matter last fall’s election, it’s unlikely either side is strong enough to dictate the terms.