Obama reaches for Republican support


President Barack Obama travels to the Capitol today to meet with House and Senate Republicans, the latest in a series of high-profile efforts to reach across the aisle and make good on his campaign promise to swim against the partisan tide that has flooded Washington for decades.


So far, his gestures have shown few signs of success, as Republicans have continued to snipe at his signature initiative - legislation to stimulate the economy - and even question the sincerity of his efforts. In the stimulus bill's first two tests last week, it passed two committees without a single Republican vote.

But whether or not he picks up support from Republican lawmakers, Obama has already accomplished one important political aim: He is now winning over more Republican voters than he did on Election Day - a phenomenon that, if it continues, could strengthen the president's hand on Capitol Hill.


"You don't calculate the impact of his effort in terms of the number of votes he gets on the stimulus bill," said Bill McInturff, a GOP pollster who worked for Obama's rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. "You calculate it based on how he is perceived by Republicans around the country, and it looks to be substantially more positive."

Still, it will be a blow to Obama if he ends up as Bill Clinton did in 1993, when the president's cornerstone economic initiative, which included a politically risky tax increase, passed with no support from Republicans.

"The stimulus bill is going to lay the predicate for future cooperation," said Vin Weber, a Republican former House member who is now a lobbyist. "If this policy is dictated on a party-line vote, it's hard to imagine that anything else will be bipartisan."

Despite the partisan atmosphere, the Senate confirmed New York Federal Reserve Bank chief Timothy Geithner as Obama's treasury secretary yesterday.

The 60-34 vote, in which handfuls of Republicans and Democrats voted against their party leaders, put Geithner at the helm of Obama's economic team as it races to halt the worst financial slide in generations.

In swift order reflecting the urgency, Obama was expected to attend Geithner's swearing-in last night at the Treasury Department. Reflecting the ambivalence of lawmakers, a third of the chamber voted against Geithner, in large part because of his failure to pay all his taxes on income received from the International Monetary Fund in 2001 and in three subsequent years.

Ten Republicans overlooked that matter and voted for confirmation. One Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, told reporters earlier in the day that he would vote yes, but he changed his mind and voted no. Three Democrats and one independent voted against Geithner's confirmation, including Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia.

Meanwhile, Obama dispatched his special Middle East envoy on his inaugural peacemaking trip yesterday, declaring that that the emissary, former Sen. George J. Mitchell, would speak for the White House in a search for "progress, not just photo-ops."


"Now, understand that Senator Mitchell is going to be fully empowered by me and fully empowered by Secretary Clinton," he said. "So when he speaks, he will be speaking for us."

Some analysts have warned that if the administration puts its prestige on the line and the current cease-fire between Israel and the militant group Hamas collapses, it could be an early black mark for the Obama team.

Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, said the announcement was intended to stress that Mitchell is speaking for Obama and to push back against anyone critical of the appointment. Sending Mitchell to the region also allows Obama to take action without "getting bogged down in the details."

"He can say, 'George is on it,' " Levy said.

Mitchell, who was named last Thursday, left yesterday for an eight-day trip to the Middle East and Europe. Mitchell will stop in Egypt, Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Paris and London.