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Barack Obama likes Republicans. And Republicans appreciate Barack Obama. He has worked closely with GOP members in the Illinois state Senate and in the U.S. Senate, pushing legislation ranging from expanding children's health insurance to political reforms.
That's the message Obama's Democratic presidential campaign wants voters to get. It's delivered prominently on his campaign web site. One of his first television ads features a Republican state senator from his home state.
And Obama likes to drop the names of two of his favorite Republican senators—Richard Lugar of Indiana and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
The truth, of course, is much more complex. In his relatively short career as a lawmaker, Obama has developed a reputation for working well with Republicans on individual issues, but at the same time he has built a record as a reliable Democratic vote.
Elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama is trying to convince voters that his new way of thinking about partisanship is more important than his lack of Washington experience.
"The conventional wisdom in Washington tells us that we're a country divided into Red States and Blue States; that we're doomed to fight the same partisan fights over and over again," he said in remarks prepared for a Labor Day rally in Manchester, N.H.
Obama argues that his eight years in the Illinois Senate demonstrate his ability to do things differently. "My experience as a state legislator, reaching across the aisle to solve difficult problems, like reforming a death penalty that's broken or expanding health care to children that didn't have it or passing ethics reform, even against the objections of some people in my party, I think those are experiences that will signal to people that I am not about business as usual," Obama said during a March 19 appearance on CNN's Larry King Live.
Obama was a key player in passage of the Gift Ban Act, which was the first major overhaul of Illinois' ethics legislation in 25 years. The law prohibits legislators, state officers and employees, as well as judges, from soliciting or receiving gifts from a person with interests affected by the state government. Kirk Dillard, a Republican in the Illinois state Senate, worked with Obama on the ethics bill and was impressed enough to appear in an Obama presidential campaign TV ad even though he's endorsing GOP Sen. John McCain.
"Sen. Obama worked on some of the deepest issues we had and was successful in a bipartisan way," Dillard said in the ad. "Republican legislators respected Sen. Obama. His negotiation skills and an ability to understand both sides would serve the country well."
Dillard said in an interview he made the ad primarily because of his work with Obama on ethics reform, but also mentioned his cooperation on changes in the state's death penalty laws. "Sen. Obama, even on a topic more suited for liberals, worked extremely well with conservatives," he said. Obama collaborated with another Republican, Rep. Sandra Pihos, on legislation expanding the state's KidCare and FamilyCare health insurance programs.
"I believe Republicans did feel they could work with him on certain pieces of legislation," said Mike Lawrence, executive director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Center at Southern Illinois University. "Even people who disagreed with Obama felt he would listen. He would disagree without getting in people's faces."
Nonetheless, by most indications Obama compiled a Democratic voting record in Springfield. In 2001, he received a 100 percent rating from the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council and in 2002 received a grade of "A" from Illinois Citizens for Handgun Control. He consistently received high scores from the Illinois AFL-CIO.
"Sen. Obama's voting record was clearly liberal," Dillard said.
Since arriving in Washington in 2005, Obama has voted consistently with his party while also attempting to work with Republicans on several high-profile issues.
The results have been mixed.
In February 2006, Obama and McCain of Arizona got into a nasty partisan fight over ethics reform. The two had been working together on a proposal, when McCain sent Obama a letter accusing the Democrat of partisan posturing.
Obama had taken his party's lead on the issue, and he had asked McCain to support his version of a bill. McCain, known for his fiery temper, shot back in a letter:
"I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in politics to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble," McCain wrote. "Again, sorry for the confusion, but please be assured, I won't make that same mistake again."
The two eventually made peace.
Obama has had more success co-sponsoring bills with two other Republicans — Lugar and Coburn. The Democrat worked with Lugar on several energy bills and on Jan. 11, President Bush signed their bill to expand U.S. cooperation to destroy conventional weapons.
Obama and Coburn successfully pushed through Congress legislation creating a database to track federal grants and contracts. Open-government advocates said the legislation would help provide more public access to the so-called earmarking process, where individual lawmakers secure funding for particular projects.
Coburn, a foe of earmarking, said he and Obama have cosponsored other open-government proposals. "I consider Barack a friend," said Coburn, an outspoken conservative. "He's a liberal. He's not ashamed of it. What we agree on is that things should be transparent."
But one former top Senate aide, a Republican, said Obama has not been in Washington long enough to earn the bipartisan credentials he claims.
"The general sense was … he came to town and tried to figure out how the Democratic Caucus works and how the Senate works and hasn't had much time to legislate," said Eric Ueland, former chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. "Most of the work done in the United States Senate is done on a bipartisan basis."
Ueland is not alone in this view.
One term — let alone three years — is not enough time to judge a Senate career, said Lewis Gould, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Texas and author of The Most Exclusive Club: A History of the Modern United States Senate.
Gould declined to discuss Obama directly but said, "It's easy enough to cosponsor things. It's very hard to judge effectiveness."
He said former President Lyndon Johnson, a former Senate majority leader, said the Senate was filled with workhorses and show horses. "Trying to figure out which is which is what drives Senate historians crazy," Gould said. "It's hard to become a workhorse in one term."
But if it is difficult to evaluate Obama's work as a senator, it is possible to examine his voting record. Congressional Quarterly does vote studies each year and found that in 2005, Obama voted his party's position 97 percent of the time on votes where Republicans and Democrats were divided. In 2006, it was 96 percent.
So far in 2007, his score is 96 percent. The three other Senate Democrats vying for the presidency scored higher: Joseph Biden of Delaware 98 percent and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut 97 percent.
Also in 2007, CQ's analysis found that Obama cast votes that agreed with President Bush's position 53 percent of the time, up from 49 percent in 2006. Clinton supported the president only 46 percent of the time, while Dodd and Biden have supported Bush 50 percent of the time.
Obama is trying to convince voters that he's bringing a new brand of politics to Washington — that in the Senate, he's spending a great deal of time talking to colleagues on the Republican side of the chamber. That much may be true. But when it comes down to voting on key pieces of legislation, Obama lines up with the Democrats almost all the time.