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Former GOP Senator Reflects on Presidential Meals and Meetings

Former Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., left, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., walk to a budget talk meeting with Vice President Joe Biden in May 2011. Kyl doesn’t envy his former colleagues who are hammering out the current budget. Photo By Bill Clark/Roll Call.

Former Republican Sen. Jon Kyl spent a lot of face-to-face time with President Barack Obama during the early iterations of budget negotiations that his former colleagues are currently pursuing.

As the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, Kyl participated in the first series of budget sit-downs in 2010 and 2011 involving the president and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House, across the street at Blair House, and elsewhere. But unlike the GOP senators who came out of Wednesday night’s dinner and informal negotiation with the president at a local hotel saying they’d enjoyed themselves, Kyl doesn’t recall his encounters fondly.

“It was no fun being in that Cabinet office day after day. I came to dread having to go to those sessions,” Kyl told the NewsHour in an interview Thursday.

“If [the latest round of meetings] are going to be productive, the president will have to change the way he approached those meetings at the White House that I was part of, which were not negotiating sessions but the president holding forth and denigrating the views of those who disagreed with him,” Kyl said.

It was a common complaint from Republicans at the time: that the president felt he had the upper hand and could demand GOP concessions.

Asked about those charges on Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney rejected that interpretation anew.

“In the president’s first term, he engaged consistently with Congress, especially in the first two years … including leaders of the Republican Party after the midterm elections through the summer of 2011,” Carney said. “Again and again, this President has moved towards Republicans in trying to find common grounds in these negotiations. And I think, as you have seen him say and is evidenced by the meetings he’s been having, he remains interested in that.”

Kyl, who represented Arizona in the House and Senate over a 26-year career, acknowledges this time may be different: “Meetings can generally be helpful.”

Kyl sees a president wary of his public approval ratings.

“The most recent flurry of activity could well be the president perceiving maybe his approach was not as effective as he thought it might be. My understanding is the president’s [poll] numbers are dropping ever since the public figured out the sky wasn’t going to fall as a result of the sequester. He probably over-played his hand there.”

But if Mr. Obama is reacting to the public mood, Kyl said he’s not alone in facing the realities of pursuing policy in this era that often requires a take-no-prisoners approach to trying to win public approval.

“The media’s partially to blame for this because of the way everything is covered 24-7. There’s no time-out between the last election and next seemingly, so that [means] neither side wants to give up anything. They both want to take advantage of the other if they can,” said Kyl.

That applies to the central conundrum that’s kept Democrats and Republicans from concluding a broad deficit reduction deal despite more than two years of trying — the question of how to handle Democrats’ calls for more tax hikes that are opposed by the Republican-controlled House.

“The only thing that will move people off those two positions is a change in the political dynamic,” Kyl said. “Both sides were relatively willing to let the sequester play out to see what would happen politically and the degree to which your side will be willing to negotiate is directly proportionate to their view of the public reaction to their position. I don’t think that either side will voluntarily [give in] on their position for any reason other than that they’re not doing well politically.”

Kyl said “there’s a lot wrong” with such poll-based governing but it’s the product of a partisan era he says began about the time of George W. Bush’s first term.

And it’s an era he may be leaving behind. Today he works with the Washington-based international law firm Covington & Burling and the conservative-leaning think tank American Enterprise Institute on U.S. global leadership issues.

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