Senator criticizes Obama's 'audacity' in using Republican lawmakers as 'props'

A GOP senator ripped into President Barack Obama at a meeting on Capitol Hill Tuesday, telling him he had “audacity” coming in and using Republican lawmakers as "props."  

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the Democrats’ partner on Wall Street reform, criticized Obama during a meeting the president requested with the Senate Republican conference to court their support for the remaining initiatives on his agenda.

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After the meeting, GOP senators said they appreciated the outreach.

But behind closed doors, the president faced a hostile crowd of angry Republicans, led by Corker.

“I said, ‘I got to tell you something, there’s a degree of audacity in you being here today,’” Corker said, recalling his exchange with the president.

“If you look at your three major initiatives they were almost all done on party-line votes,” Corker told Obama. “I feel we’re all props here today.

“Just last week you engineered a very partisan vote,” Corker added. “I would just like for you to explain to me, when you get up in the morning, and when you come over to lunch like this, how you reconcile that duplicity.”

“It hit a nerve, obviously,” Corker said, describing Obama’s reaction to the broadside.

The sharp criticism from Corker is ironic after Democrats touted him as an honest broker last month when they were battling to bring Wall Street reform to the Senate floor. Corker voted against the bill last week.

At an April press conference, Democratic leaders showed television footage of Corker calling on his Republican colleagues to lower the tone of rhetoric on the Wall Street legislation.

A Republican in the room confirmed the account.

“Corker said that the president had some audacity to show up and demand bipartisanship,” said the second source.

Obama was left somewhat speechless by Corker’s charge.

He and Corker had what the Tennessee senator describes as a “good relationship” when they served in the upper chamber together.

The Republican who witnessed the exchange said Obama offered up a mild response.

“He said he wanted the bill the way it was and just because Corker didn’t get what he wanted he shouldn’t get so mad,” said the source.

A spokesman for the White House said the exchange with Corker was not as harsh as Republicans described.

“The exchange he had with the president was actually pretty civil,” said White House spokesman Bill Burton. 

“They disagreed about the amount of bipartisan effort that was put into financial regulatory reform but, as the president has said before, he would have loved to have gotten 70 or 80 votes on the bill — but he wasn’t going to run up the vote total at the expense of watering down the legislation,” Burton said. 

Corker was one of several Republicans who challenged Obama candidly during the private meeting, which lasted for an hour and fifteen minutes.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) challenged Obama to secure the Mexican border, and he reproached the administration for mischaracterizing a new law in Arizona designed to crack down on illegal immigrants.

“Senator McCain made the point that it was not helpful to the debate to have the Arizona law mischaracterized,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) challenged Obama over his administration’s response to the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), an orthopedic surgeon before joining the Senate, criticized the president’s recently-passed healthcare bill. Barrasso has gone to the floor repeatedly in recent weeks to critique the new healthcare law.

Nevertheless, Obama appeared upbeat after emerging from the Lyndon Baines Johnson room near the Senate chamber.

“It was good,” he told reporters, when asked about the meeting. “We had a good, frank discussion on a whole range of issues.”

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) later described the session as a “spirited discussion.”

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) described the meeting as “testy.”

He noted that if Obama truly wants bipartisanship on energy legislation, he should support a bill that recently passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Instead of voicing support for the legislation sponsored by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Obama prodded Republicans to support a bill that includes controversial restrictions on carbon emissions.

No Republican has been willing to back the comprehensive energy and climate change proposal drafted by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

Obama told Republicans that he would be willing to meet them halfway or three-quarters of the way on legislative proposals, GOP lawmakers said.

But the president also repeatedly reminded GOP lawmakers that his ability to compromise is limited by pressure from the liberal base of his party.

“It seems like the definition of bipartisan is always the furthest-left thing that can pass through the Senate, which ends up not being partisan,” said Brownback.

“That’s the track we’re starting on on energy,” he said. “It starts with Kerry-Lieberman, which is as far-left as tactically they view can get 60 [votes].”

“He cited often the number of people pushing him from his left,” Brownback said.

Despite the heated exchanges, some Senate Republicans say they appreciated the gesture of a presidential visit to their conference.

Republican lawmakers applauded Obama as the meeting ended.

Corker said the frank talk “cleared the air” but he wondered whether the president would be making a return visit any time soon.