US president Barack Obama clashed angrily with Republican senators at a Washington lunch where they accused him of duplicity, audacity and unbending partisanship.
Politicians said yesterday’s bitter exchange left legislative logjams intact, and one Republican leader said nothing was likely to change before the November elections.
Mr Obama’s sharpest accuser was Bob Corker, a first-term senator who feels the administration undermined his efforts to craft a bipartisan financial regulation bill.
“I told him I thought there was a degree of audacity in him even showing up today after what happened with financial regulation,” Mr Corker said. “I just wanted him to tell me how, when he wakes up in the morning, he comes over to a luncheon like ours today, how does he reconcile that duplicity?”
Four people who were in the room said Mr Obama bristled and defended his administration’s handling of negotiations.
On the way out, Mr Corker said, Mr Obama approached him and both men repeated their main points.
“I told him there was a tremendous disconnect from his words and the actions of his administration,” Mr Corker said.
But White House spokesman Bill Burton, who attended the 80-minute session, said the exchange “was actually pretty civil”.
The senators applauded Mr Obama, who had requested the luncheon, when he entered and left the room.
Mr Obama told reporters as he departed: “It was a good, frank discussion about a whole range of issues.”
But some Republicans were less kind.
“He needs to take a Valium before he comes in and talks to Republicans,” Senator Pat Roberts said. “He’s pretty thin-skinned.”
Senator David Vitter said he addressed Mr Obama, “trying to demand overdue action” on the giant oil spill damaging Gulf coast states. He said got “no specific response” except Mr Obama’s pledge to have an authoritative White House official call him within hours.
Arizona senator John McCain, Mr Obama’s 2008 presidential opponent, said he pressed the president on immigration issues, telling him “we need to secure the border first” before taking other steps.
“The president didn’t agree,” he said.
McCain said he defended his state’s controversial immigration law, which Mr Obama says could lead to discrimination. It directs police, when questioning people about possible offences, to ask about their immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” they are in the country illegally.
Mr McCain said: “I pointed out that members of his administration who have not read the law have mischaracterised the law – a very egregious act on their part.”
Mr Burton said Mr Obama told Mr McCain that he had read the Arizona law himself and his concerns remained.
After the lunch, no-one suggested the two parties were even a smidgen closer to resolving differences over energy, immigration and other issues that Mr Obama has said he wants to act on this year.
Senators said the November elections – all 435 House of Representatives seats, 36 Senate seats and another three dozen governors’ seats are up for grabs – were not overtly mentioned. But they were an unmistakable backdrop.
Republicans hope for big gains, possibly even control of the House. They are banking on voter resentment of Obama initiatives such as the new health care law, and many see little point in co-operating with Mr Obama and Democratic politicians at this point.
Senator John Barrasso complained to Mr Obama about the partisan genesis of the health care law, enacted without a single Republican vote in Congress.
It was hard to know if Mr Obama genuinely thought his luncheon visit would melt some of the partisan iciness. Several Republican senators and aides in the room said he seemed to be going through the motions, not making real efforts at consensus.