WASHINGTON - If President Obama thought having a private lunch with Republican senators would ease partisan tensions in Congress, he grabbed the wrong recipe.
The president walked into a contentious 80-minute session Tuesday in which Republican senators accused him of duplicity, audacity, and unbending partisanship. Lawmakers said the testy exchange left legislative logjams intact, and one GOP leader said nothing was likely to change before the November elections.
Obama's sharpest accuser was Bob Corker of Tennessee, a first-term senator who feels the administration undermined his efforts to help 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," Corker told reporters. "I just wanted him to tell me how, when he wakes up in the morning, comes over to a luncheon like ours today, how does he reconcile that duplicity?"
Four people who were in the room said Obama bristled and defended his administration's handling of the financial negotiations. On the way out, Corker said, 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," Corker said.
White House spokesman Bill Burton, who attended the session in the Capitol, said the exchange "was actually pretty civil."
The senators applauded Obama, who had requested the luncheon, when he entered and left the room. Obama told reporters as he departed, "It was a good, frank discussion about a whole range of issues."
Some Republicans were less kind. "He needs to take a Valium before he comes in and talks to Republicans," Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts told reporters. "He's pretty thin-skinned."
Louisiana Sen. David Vitter said he addressed Obama, "trying to demand overdue action" on the giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He said he got "no specific response" except to have a White House official call him within hours.
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso complained about the partisan genesis of the health-care law, enacted without a single Republican vote in Congress. Administration aides repeatedly said GOP input was welcome, but none within reason turned up.
Senators said the November elections - all 435 House seats, 36 Senate seats, and three dozen governors' seats are up for grabs - were not overtly mentioned. But they were an unmistakable backdrop.
After the luncheon, no one suggested the two parties were closer to resolving differences over immigration, energy, and other issues that Obama has said he wants to act on this year.
"We simply have a large difference of opinion that's not likely to be settled until November about taxes, spending, and the debt," said Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander.