By Alexander Bolton and Bob Cusack - 06/05/13 09:00 AM EDT
Sen. Chuck Grassley, a pivotal deal-maker in Congress, said Tuesday that he has not received a phone call from President Obama in four years.
The lack of communication between the Iowa Republican and the president is an indication that Obama’s new “charm offensive” with Republicans on Capitol Hill has come up short.
Grassley, who struck landmark legislative deals with both former Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, said he is surprised there hasn’t been more outreach from the 44th commander in-chief.
In an hourlong interview with The Hill, Grassley also said Obama has broken his wide-ranging promises on government transparency. He called Obama “the most stonewalling president this country has ever had.”
As the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Grassley has primary jurisdiction over two of the president’s highest domestic priorities: gun violence and immigration reform legislation. But Grassley has received scant personal attention from Obama.
In 2009, Obama basically had Grassley on speed dial, calling him frequently during negotiations over an overhaul of the nation’s healthcare system. Grassley at the time was one of three Republicans on the Group of Six, which also included Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and former Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine).
The relationship unraveled after a meeting at the White House in August 2009.
“We had a meeting down at the White House about Aug. 5, 2009 — the six of us — and he asked me this question: ‘Would you be willing to be one or two or three Republicans voting with the Democrats to get a bipartisan bill?’ and I said, ‘No,’ ” Grassley recalled.
“I never had a phone call from him since,” Grassley added.
The six-term senator noted that he occasionally has exchanged pleasantries with the president when he’s seen him at an event or has been invited to the White House for a meeting on another subject.
As part of his charm offensive, Obama has twice dined with groups of Senate Republicans. Grassley wasn’t invited.
Grassley says he hasn’t even met Miguel Rodriguez, the assistant to the president and White House director of legislative affairs.
Democrats charge that Grassley wasn’t interested in striking a healthcare deal in 2009, claiming he was just trying to run out the clock.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Grassley have worked together on a range of issues for more than a decade, including taxes, Medicare drug coverage and trade.
After Obama was elected in 2008, many conservatives worried about an Obama-Grassley alliance. It never materialized for a variety of reasons; one cited by political observers is that there was speculation Grassley was going to draw a primary challenge in the 2010 cycle.
Another factor in the breakdown of the Obama-Grassley relationship is the senator’s aggressive oversight activities.
Grassley blasted the president for failing to keep his promise, made at the start of his first term, to run the most transparent administration in history.
“Those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government,” Obama declared at his first inauguration.
Grassley said the president has fallen far short of that pledge.
“Historically in my time in the Senate, I’ve had problems with both Republican and Democratic presidents, but this president is the worst from this standpoint — his own benchmark,” Grassley said. “By his own benchmark this is the most stonewalling president this country has ever had.”
Grassley is especially critical of Attorney General Eric Holder, whom he has accused of ignoring requests for thousands of pages of documents related to the “Fast and Furious” gun-walking operation on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I think he’s been a game player,” Grassley said of Holder. “Why the stonewalling on 70,000 pages that we’re requesting for Fast and Furious?”
But the senior Republican stopped short of calling for Holder’s resignation. He said he would wait for the results of House Republican investigations into the Department of Justice’s seizure of journalists’ phone records. The House Judiciary Committee is reviewing whether Holder may have committed perjury to Congress when he testified about the Justice Department’s handling of national security leaks.
“I’m going to wait until they reach some judgment on that before I ask for a resignation,” Grassley said.
A White House official pushed back against Grassley’s claim that Obama has not fulfilled his promise to run a transparent administration.
“As part of the president’s unparalleled commitment to reforming Washington, this administration is the first ever to release White House visitor records,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.
“Over the past four years, federal agencies have gone to great efforts to make government more transparent and more accessible than ever,” he added.
The administration argues that it has improved its processing for answering Freedom of Information Act requests and extended protection for government whistle-blowers. Obama signed an order increasing whistle-blower protection for intelligence community employees and other workers with security clearances.
The Obama-Grassley relationship will come under greater scrutiny in the weeks ahead as the Senate takes up the nominations of three judges the president tapped Tuesday for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the second most powerful court in the country.
The nominees would fill three vacancies on the 11-seat court, which now includes four Democratic and four Republican appointees.
Obama on Tuesday urged the Senate to quickly confirm appellate litigator Patricia Millett, Georgetown Law professor Cornelia Pillard and D.C. District Court Judge Robert Wilkins.
The president warned Senate Republicans to stop playing “games.”
Grassley countered that Obama is the one playing games. He said Republicans have approved more than 99 percent of the president’s nominations, and pointed out the White House hasn’t submitted nominees for dozens of vacancies.
The 79-year-old senator is showing no signs of slowing down. He jogs several times a week before the sun rises, and for the 33rd year in a row, he will visit all of Iowa’s 99 counties annually.
“We’ve done 73 so far this year, so we’ll be done by Labor Day, God willing,” Grassley said with a smile.