Obama's Pursuit of Bipartisanship Raises Question of Definition

Peanuts illustrator Charles M. Schulz frequently crafted cartoons with Charlie Brown and the gang offering intimate descriptions of what happiness is -- to them.

Linus', Lucy's and Peppermint Patty's definitions of happiness range from having two kinds of ice cream to five kinds of crayons and the ubiquitous warm puppy.

The 111th Congress is barely a month old. And the most vexing question facing Capitol Hill is what bipartisanship is...

President Obama promised on the campaign trail to govern from the center. But expanded majorities in the House and Senate and an electoral mandate have raised questions about whether he's still willing.

But what constitutes bipartisanship?

Democrats point to the following:

Bipartisanship is..appointing Republicans Judd Gregg, Bob Gates and Ray LaHood to your Cabinet.

Bipartisanship is...the president meeting with House Republicans in an extraordinary, closed door session on Capitol Hill.

Bipartisanship is...holding three House committee markup sessions to write the stimulus bill, allowing Republicans to offer several amendments on the floor and permitting a vote on the GOP version of the bill.

But that doesn't meet the bipartisan test for Republicans.

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Tex., dismissed the committee markups and enhanced floor opportunities as window dressing.

"Bipartisanship should mean more than giving Republicans the opportunity to vote for Democrat bills," said House GOP Conference Chairman Mike Pence, R-Ind.

"Let no one be mistaken that this bill is the result of bipartisan negotiations," thundered Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. "We were never at the negotiating table."

Grassley suggested that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., essentially bragged that her side wrote the bill because Democrats won the election.

When Democrats prepared the $819 billion stimulus bill, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, crowed about a provision that would help states provide more contraception programs through Medicaid. Republicans artfully seized the contraception issue along with $21 million to re-sod the National Mall in Washington as key talking points.

"How you can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives? How does that stimulate the economy?" Boehner asked.

Mindful that Republicans scored traction on those points, Democrats cleaved both provisions from the bill.

When asked if he was pleased that Democrats acceded to Republican demands and chopped out the contraception money, Pence dismissed the apparent GOP victory with a shrug.

When the House considered the stimulus package, no Republicans backed the legislation. Many Republicans applauded Boehner for imposing strict discipline on the House GOP conference.

Yet 11 moderate Democrats bucked their party and voted against the plan.

One senior lawmaker, who wished to remain anonymous, argued that Democrats were actually bipartisan since some of them voted against their party and with the Republicans.

Reeling after two election losses, House Republicans are seeking relevance. At risk of alienating their conservative base (but acknowledging Obama's electoral mandate), House GOP members attempted to make playground friends with the president. Simultaneously, they attempted to carve a chasm between Obama and the House Democratic leadership.

After Obama's lengthy question and answer session with House Republicans, Pence was effusive in his praise for the new president.

"The door of this conference will stay open. We are grateful for it and we embrace it," Pence said.

But that courtship came to an abrupt end Friday when Pence turned on the president after his speech before House Democrats at their annual retreat in Williamsburg, Va.,

"I am disappointed that our new president appears to have so quickly abandoned his call for bipartisanship and has resorted to tough political rhetoric to pass the Democrats so-called stimulus bill," Pence said in a statement.

The Senate is now poised to approve its version of the stimulus plan with less than a handful of Republican votes.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.,declared on the Senate floor late Friday night that one side will talk about how good the bill is while the other side talks about how close to being good the bill is. Reid's line drew laughter because a spate of Senate Republicans had lambasted the Democratic majority all night for not being bipartisan enough.

But regardless of the disputes about whether Democrats have shown bipartisanship, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., offered this nugget:

"The best legislation is always bipartisan," Maloney said.

Certainly Republicans contend this bill is far from bipartisan and isn't the best legislation.

To Charles M. Schulz, happiness may be a warm puppy. And that may also be the only thing where Democrats and Republicans can find bipartisan agreement.