WASHINGTON — Is President Barack Obama preparing for a new political balance in Washington if Democrats lose or significantly narrow their congressional majorities in November's elections and he'll need more Republicans to get anything done?
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., suggested that's the case Thursday, a day after he, the Senate's most powerful Republican, got his first one-on-one meeting with the president at the White House.
The hour-long Oval Office meeting came at Obama's invitation.
"The president is a very smart guy, and he figures he'll be seeing a lot of me in the future," McConnell said at a press breakfast, adding dryly that he looks forward to "seeing a lot more of him."
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In an exclusive interview Thursday with McClatchy, Obama senior adviser David Axelrod refuted McConnell's interpretation of the president's motives, saying, "No, that really wasn't it."
Obama's goal was simply to follow up on a recent bipartisan leaders' meeting, to urge that Republicans stop blocking appointments, especially judicial nominees, and to explore what other issues they could agree to bring votes on in the near term.
McConnell didn't dispute that those topics came up, but he suggested that Obama is driven by the recognition that securing votes next year could be harder if Republicans make gains in November as expected. McConnell said some of the "areas of common agreement" they talked about were nuclear power, promoting more electric vehicles, deficit reduction and trade agreements.
Axelrod downplayed the significance of the meeting, saying they'd talked plenty before by phone or in group meetings.
"This was about trying to unstuck a process that has been stuck, at least on things that should not be a matter of controversy, and that's entirely what the meeting was about."
"He's the minority leader now," Axelrod said. "He's going to be the minority leader next year. And we'll meet with him then because that's the president's responsibility, to try and get things done . . .
"We've always known that we needed bipartisan support to get significant things done."
McConnell has been Obama's chief Capitol Hill nemesis. The veteran lawmaker has kept his 41-member Senate caucus largely united and delayed consideration of the health care, financial regulation and economic stimulus bills.
Democrats now control 59 of the Senate's 100 seats and 255 of the House of Representatives' 435 seats. Such big majorities, the Democrats' largest since the late 1970s, led Obama to virtually ignore GOP concerns, McConnell said.
"When he began his term, he was sitting on a 70 percent approval rating, he had a 40-seat majority in the House, on the way to getting 60 in the Senate," McConnell said. "He didn't feel like he needed us, and I don't fault him for that. He was looking at the political situation and the message that (White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel) was giving was 'go for it'."
Should Democrats lose seats in November, however, the dynamic will change, since it takes 60 votes to move anything forward in the Senate. On most major bills, Democrats have been able to woo a Republican or two and overcome GOP opposition.
Obama spent Thursday in Chicago, visiting workers at a Ford plant and campaigning to try to keep his former Senate seat in Democrats' hands against a stiff Republican challenge. Back in Washington, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan won Senate confirmation, 63 to 37. For now, at least, he didn't need McConnell's vote.
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