WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Senate Republicans — notably 2008 GOP rival John McCain — clashed sharply Tuesday over immigration policy, as a sometimes contentious closed-door meeting failed to budge either side from long-held views.
"Bipartisanship is not about personalities. We like him fine," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
But, said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., "I felt like in many ways we were props."
Added Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who often works with Democrats to fashion major legislation, "Some of our guys are frustrated, and I think rightfully so."
Corker, who tried for weeks to negotiate with Democrats on financial regulation changes, sharply questioned Obama.
"I said, 'Mr. President, I think there's a degree of audacity in your being here today,' " noting that Obama had sought bipartisanship before but rarely involved Republicans in serious talks over major bills.
"Financial reform," Corker said, "we all thought was doable. When you wake up in the morning and come here for our luncheon, how do you reconcile that with this duplicity?"
Obama, he said, was "very prickly" and gave a lengthy response. Spokesman Bill Burton said the meeting was less contentious than it appeared.
Congress this week is considering spending legislation, and Graham noted, "We haven't been able to find much bipartisanship here, the debt situation, it's very frustrating."
Obama met with the 41-member GOP Senate caucus for 70 minutes during its weekly Capitol luncheon. The president has met with Republican leaders and rank and file before, but he has won little if any support for his major initiatives.
Officially, everyone was pleasant Tuesday. McConnell said the meeting was a "good exchange," and Obama called it "a good, frank discussion about a whole range of issues."
But Republicans recounted that the meeting had testy moments punctuated by feelings of mistrust.
"There was frustration on our side," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
The meeting reportedly included tense exchanges, and there was no apparent progress on the list of issues before Congress, including reducing debt, creating jobs, fashioning a new energy policy and, notably, curbing illegal immigration, issues that have sharply divided the two parties since Obama became president 16 months ago.
"I let the president know you get one chance on immigration, don't throw this thing on the floor, because if it goes down in flames, nobody's going to touch it for a decade," Graham said.
McCain, the Arizona senator who ran against Obama in 2008, brought up the Arizona immigration law, which allows law enforcement officers to ask the immigration status of people it stops for other reasons.
McCain, who faces a tough challenge to re-nomination, told the president that "it was not helpful to the debate to have the Arizona law mischaracterized," according to Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
Obama has called the law "misguided" and said it "threatened to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans." Opponents have maintained the policy allows racial profiling.
Shortly after the Obama meeting, McCain went to the Senate floor and introduced an amendment to fund the immediate deployment of 6,000 National Guard troops to help secure the Southwest border with Mexico. Obama on Tuesday announced a plan to send 1,200 troops to the border.
McCain, who co-authored a 2005 comprehensive immigration overhaul bill with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., has taken a harder line on immigration as he is engaged in a hotly contested Senate primary against former Rep. J.D. Hayworth.
Obama told the Republican senators that he "would like to do immigration," according to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. White House officials and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who is facing his own tough re-election bid, has said they would like to bring up a comprehensive bill this year that would provide a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
Democratic House of Representatives leaders say they're in no hurry to bring up immigration because their members have taken enough tough votes in an election year. An immigration bill doesn't appear to be going anywhere in the Senate because lawmakers can't muster the 60 votes needed to cut off debate.
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