Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2010; A13
President Obama will meet Friday with perhaps his harshest critics outside of Fox News headquarters: the House Republicans.
The House GOP invited Obama this year to speak at its annual retreat, which will be held in Baltimore from Thursday to Saturday. Coming only two days after Obama's State of the Union address, the session could herald better relations between the two sides in 2010 -- or lift their tensions to an even higher level.
The White House and congressional Republicans spent much of last year bickering over whom to blame for their inability to work together, as the administration constantly blasted the House GOP for unanimously opposing the economic stimulus, while Republicans said Obama and House Democrats refused to incorporate their ideas. A private meeting at the White House that included Obama and House Republicans in December on job growth turned into a griping session, with the president accusing the GOP of "scaring" Americans about his policies while Republicans said the anxiety in the country stemmed from his agenda.
So far this year, nothing has changed. House Republicans have said Obama's policies led to the defeat of Democrat Martha Coakley in the special Senate election in Massachusetts. White House advisers, in turn, have blamed the GOP for the negative tone of Washington politics.
Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), the No. 3 in the House GOP leadership and the organizer of the retreat, said House Republicans wanted a stronger relationship with Obama and said the GOP's goals of working with Obama and winning this fall's elections are not in conflict. "We serve our party best when we serve our country," he said. But he added that "the conversation with the president has to be a two-way street."
In addition to Obama, the House GOP will hear from Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, one of the party's new stars, as well as former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former House majority leader Richard K. Armey, who heads up the conservative activist group FreedomWorks. Party leaders said they will focus on discussing a policy agenda for their candidates in the midterm elections.
Last year's retreat was at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Va. This year, worried about the appearance of a staying at a posh hotel as unemployment hovers over 10 percent, the Republicans have opted for a Marriott near the Inner Harbor. Earlier this month, Democrats eschewed holding a retreat at a luxury resort and heard from experts and the president in the Capitol's visitor center.
While he deals with a energized GOP, Obama will also face an increasingly anxious left of his party in Congress. The Progressive Caucus, a group of more than 80 of the most liberal members in Congress, says Republican Scott Brown's upset victory in Massachusetts was not because Obama and Democrats were too liberal, but because they were insufficiently so.
"I don't think it was about health care, it was because change didn't happen fast enough -- that's the frustration," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), one of the group's leaders. "I believe that if we had pursued the populist, progressive agenda, such as a public option, we could have energized our base."
A Washington Post-Kaiser-Harvard poll of Massachusetts voters conducted after Brown's election showed that young and minority voters, who formed the backbone of Obama's support in 2008, represented a smaller percentage of the electorate in last Tuesday's special election. It's not clear whether policy issues or Obama's absence from the ballot caused some of these voters not to go to the polls.
Whatever the reason for the Massachusetts loss, Rep. Raul Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), leader of the Progressive Caucus, has outlined an agenda for 2010 that he says will appeal to the base: increased funding for education, a job-creation bill bigger than the $154 billion version that passed the House in December over the objections of many Democratic moderates, and immigration reform. The latter in particular is unlikely to pass this year.
"We are going to push," he said. "Maybe I'm masochist, but I'm still optimistic."
The tea party is coming to Capitol Hill. Hours before the president's speech on Wednesday, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), one of the lawmakers most closely allied with the movement, and FreedomWorks will hold an event with conservative activists and lawmakers to tout a "Declaration of Health Care Independence." An aide to Bachmann said the proposal would "protect the rights of the American to make their own health decisions," as well as include 10 conservative ideas for future health reform.
The health-care event is one of the first steps the tea-party movement will take this year as it seeks to expand its influence. At a news conference Monday, FreedomWorks put out a list of candidates it is backing or opposing in key races this year. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), a candidate for the Senate; Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.); and Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) each are labeled an "Enemy of Liberty" whom the group will oppose. FreedomWorks will back GOP Senate candidates Marco Rubio (Fla.), Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) -- each, according to the group, is a "Champion of Freedom."