"Now, some of you heard I went to the [Senate] Republican Caucus today," President Obama told a receptive crowd at a fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel last night. “It was a warm and cuddly meeting," he joked. "The last time I appeared, it was before the House Republican Caucus, and we agreed to let the press in on that one. This one not so much."
The crowd laughed.
The meeting was cordial, attendees tell ABC News, though there were some tense moments.
One Republican Senator told ABC News that he thought this meeting did the president more harm than good, because the testy exchanges the president had with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, revealed someone who took these disagreements personally. I’ve never heard anyone use the word “I” so much, the senator said.
Another attendee said the president seemed particularly thin-skinned at times, though overall it was a pleasant meeting.
"We had a spirited discussion on a variety of different issues," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, later told reporters. “It was a good exchange, a candid exchange on both sides.”
President Obama told the Democratic crowd that went to the weekly Republican meeting in the Senate's LBJ Room because he wanted to talk about some of the major challenges facing the country, ones he needs their help in meeting, such as ratification of the new START nuclear disarmament treaty with Russia; the supplemental Defense spending package; on nominees -- especially Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan; on jobs; energy; and immigration reform.
Interestingly, the president did not tell the GOP caucus he was about to announce he was sending National Guard troops to the US-Mexico border, nor did he bring up the proposal to repeal Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell.
After the president spoke for roughly 20 to 25 minutes, McConnell started the Q-and-A period with a bipartisan bill to impose more sanctions against Iran. The president seemed to shoot that down by saying he wanted the United Nations to act first.
"Regretfully, the administration seems not to want to get that bill," McConnell later told reporters. "I know I've had to answer to my conference, and I think the Democratic leadership has had to answer to their conference as well, 'Whatever happened to the Iran sanctions bill?' This is one of those rare bills that could actually make a difference. I'm perplexed, frankly, about why the administration doesn't want to go on and get the bill and have the president sign it. I fear it may be because he would then have to make a decision as to whether to use the sanctions or to waive them."
Next up was immigration reform. As everyone has now become accustomed to, there was no love lost between President Obama and his 2008 challenger, Sen. McCain.
"It didn’t sound like either was listening to each other," one attendee said.
McCain criticized the administration’s description of Arizona’s immigration reform bill -- he said it was being misrepresented. The Arizonan also noted that members of the Obama administration -- meaning Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder -- had admitted that they hadn’t read it.
President Obama told McCain that he had read the bill, and he had legitimate concerns it could lead to racial profiling.
Regardless of debates over the Arizona bill, the president said, it represented a state-by-state patchwork approach. He said he would take steps to ensure greater border security, but the ultimate solution needs to be comprehensive.
"John, you're someone who's supported comprehensive immigration reform in the past," President Obama noted pointedly, given McCain's past leadership on a bipartisan approach and relatively new position that the border needs to be secured before comprehensive immigration reform can be attempted again.
Last night, President Obama told the crowd, "I think the Arizona law was a mistake, and my Justice Department is looking very carefully at the nature of this law. But I understand the frustrations of folks in Arizona. The fact of the matter is, is that for decades we keep on talking about solving the problems of the border, and we don't. Truth of the matter is, is that you’ve got hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers coming over the border, and that gets people stressed. You’ve got employers who are exploiting undocumented workers all across America, actively recruiting them and often taking advantage of them when they get here. So there is a whole bunch of work that has to be done."
Mr. Obama said, "what I told my Republican colleagues is, 'Look, I'll be there with you in terms of securing the border. That's part of my responsibility as Commander-in-Chief and as President. But you’ve got to meet me on solving the problem long term. It’s not enough to just talk about National Guard down at the border. You’ve got to talk about how we’re going to hold employers accountable and how are we going to take the folks who are living in the shadows right now, and say to them, "You’ve got a responsibility, you’ll have to pay a fine, you’ll have to pay back taxes, you’ll have to learn English. But we are going to give you a pathway in order for you to be a part of this community legally." That is something we’ve got to work on together.'"
The last thing he said to the Senate Republicans on the matter, the president said, was "you don't even have to meet me halfway. I'll bring most Democrats on these issues. I’m just looking for eight or 10 of you, you know? I mean, the day has passed when I expected this to be a full partnership."
In the meeting, Sen. Corker seemed particularly incensed about a Washington Post story from over the weekend that described the process through which Wall Street reform passed that, in the words of the Post reporters, "did little to convince embittered Republican senators of Obama's sincerity in appealing for a kinder, more harmonious Washington."
Corker noted that he had a warm relationship with President Obama when he was in the Senate, that the president knows his intentions are good. "These guys," – Corker joked, meaning his GOP colleagues – "sometimes think my intentions are too good."
The Tennessee Republican went on to criticize the President for pushing three major proposals – the stimulus package, health care reform, and Wall Street reform – that all passed on party line votes, with a few exceptions.
Corker used the word "audacity" to describe the president’s attitude; he felt the president was using Senate Republicans "as props" to try to show himself as being bipartisan while legislating in a very partisan way. How do you rectify that “duplicity?” Corker asked. There is a huge disconnect between what you say about bipartisanship and how your administration actually acts.
This seemed to hit a nerve with the president, Republicans said, who responded showing flashes of anger.
A White House source acknowledged that President Obama gave a "forceful response."
Do you think I just want 60 votes? the president asked. I'd love to get 70 or 80 votes on everything. But I wasn’t going to run up the score on votes at the expense of watering down the bill.
The president told Democrats last night that "we got some of the usual stuff about, 'Well, he talks about bipartisanship, but we don't really see partisanship in the financial regulatory bill, you know, it just passed with mostly Democratic votes, few Republican votes to break the filibuster.' "Look, understand this about bipartisanship -- I have a track record in my legislative career of working with folks across the aisle," the president said.
"And I also, by the way, am sympathetic to the fact that it’s hard for Republicans to work with me right now because there are members of their base who, if somebody even smiles at me, they think, you’re a traitor. 'You smiled at Obama. You’re nice to him. You were polite. And if you’re rude to Obama, we can raise money.' So the incentive structure right now for cooperation within the Republican Party is not real strong. So I’m sympathetic to that.
"But when we talk about bipartisanship, what we mean is, is that there’s going to be some negotiation, and, no, the Republicans aren’t going to get their way on everything," the president said. "And there are going to be some times where we disagree. And when we disagree, if we’re not doing everything the way they want and they say, I’m going to take my ball and go home, and I won’t vote for anything, that's not a failure of bipartisanship on our part. There’s got to be some give on the other side, particularly when you drove the car into the ditch."
At the GOP caucus meeting, Sen. Barrasso took issue with the skyrocketting national debt, saying something along the lines of: what are you going to do about the national debt now that we know health care isn't going to do anything?
The president said to Barrasso that while he didn’t want to re-litigate the health care reform bill, "let’s get our facts right." He went on to describe how the legislation would in fact reduce the debt. He offered to compare the Democratic health care bill with President Bush's Medicare prescription drug benefit in terms of which adds more to the debt.
The meeting ended on a more positive note, with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., talking about areas where bipartisan compromise might be possible. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs issued a statement after the meeting saying that "Obviously, there were continued differences on some of these issues. But, the President believes that direct dialogue is better than posturing, and he was pleased to have the opportunity to share views with the conference."
"Most of our comments and statements were about the three issues that we believe most Americans have up front in their lives: jobs, debt and terror," said GOP Conference Chair Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. "And we have fundamental differences of opinion ... not likely to be settled until November..."
Said McConnell: "bipartisanship is not about personalities. We like him fine...It's about policy. And regretfully, most of the major initiatives of this administration have been on the far left and his strategy has been to try to pick off as few Republicans as possible for as far-left legislation as he can get. That's not our idea of bipartisanship, but it's not personal....If he wants to meet us in the middle anytime in the balance of this Congress, obviously we'd be happy to do that."