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When Will Obama Stop Trying to Work with Republicans?

Obama seems to be determined to give bipartisanship one more shot, hoping he can smooth out GOP obstruction to his agenda.

So what will it be, Mr. Punch-it-through, or Mr. Bipartisan? Obama seems to be determined to give bipartisanship one more shot, hoping that his reasonableness will trump Republican obstruction.

Last week, right after his State of the Union Address, President Obama spent several hours with the Republicans at their Baltimore caucus retreat in his continuing, elusive quest for common ground. This week, he oscillated like a broken compass between bipartisan and partisan.

Obama's meeting with the House Republican Caucus was immediately followed by two sessions where he sounded almost truculent. Speaking to a town meeting in Nashua, New Hampshire, Obama insisted that the health bill was alive, with or without Republican support. "We're in the red zone," he insisted. "We've got to punch it through."

And at a fund-raising event for the Democratic National Committee, Obama demanded, "How can the Republicans on the Hill say, 'We're better off just blocking anything from happening?'" But the very same day, White House aides were discussing a new outreach effort to find areas of collaboration with Republicans.

Obama's strategists went back and forth between seeking a minimalist health bill that Republicans could support, and a Democrats-only strategy proposed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to pre-negotiate changes to the Senate bill acceptable to House Democrats. The fixes could then be approved by both houses by a simple majority as part the budget process; and the House could use the Senate-passed bill as a vehicle to send directly to the president's desk without having to go back for sixty Senate votes.

Meanwhile, Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, advised Democratic Leader Harry Reid that he was placing a blanket hold on all seventy pending nominations requiring Senate confirmation. Shelby was using this threat as leverage against proposed budget cuts in Alabama military installations. Shelby was also not cooperating with Banking Chairman Dodd's efforts to craft a bipartisan financial reform bill, and Dodd announced that he was suspending the joint effort and would draft his own bill.

Also this week, Senate Republicans voted unanimously against raising the debt ceiling. If they had prevailed, they would have repudiated the sovereign debt of the United States.

How much more of this will it take before Obama and the Democrats grasp that bipartisanship is a dead letter, a lousy tactic, and a sign of presidential weakness?

At the national prayer breakfast Thursday, Obama quoted John F. Kennedy's line, "Civility is not a sign of weakness." Columnist Charles Blow, in Saturday's New York Times, hit that one out of the park: "Maybe not, but servility is."

As the White House agonized over whether to do health reform as weak bipartisan tokenism or a go-for-broke Democrats-only bill, a New York Times story quoted a senior Democratic aide comparing the Obama administration to a dithering driver in a traffic rotary unable to decide which road to take. "We're still going around the circle," said the aide. "At some point, you run out of gas."

At the DNC funding event, Obama gave a glimpse of his intended strategy.

He said:

"What I'd like to do is have a meeting whereby I am sitting with the Republicans, sitting with the Democrats, sitting with health care experts and let's just go through these bills -- their ideas, our ideas. Let's walk through them in a methodical way, so that the American people can see and compare what makes the most sense. And then I think that we have got to move forward on a vote. We have got to move forward on a vote."

What, exactly, does this mean? The idea of a genuinely bipartisan health bill is defunct. Since the Democratic Congressional Leadership does not have the stomach to go back and renegotiate from scratch, point by point with Senators Lieberman, Nelson, et al, the only way to get a bill is to follow Pelosi's strategy and pass a decent measure with 51 votes. But Obama seems wedded to the illusion that Republicans are actually interested in reasoning together -- as opposed to doing whatever they can to crush him.

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