President Obama's Top Republican Ally

SACRAMENTO-While tensions are rising between President Obama and Congressional Republicans, California's Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says he is eager for more opportunities to partner with Obama on big issues like health care and energy. He's also got some advice for the new president about building inclusive "post-partisan" coalitions.

Schwarzenegger is positioned to become perhaps Obama's most important Republican ally.

He was among the most prominent GOP governors who backed the economic recovery plan that cleared Congress with support from no Republicans in the House and just three in the Senate. And Schwarzenegger has advanced his own state-level initiatives on health reform, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting alternative energy that closely track Obama's campaign proposals.

"Whether it is health care, whether it is environmental issues, we are willing to work with him," Schwarzenegger said in an interview Tuesday as he lustily puffed on a cigar in his smoking tent inside the State Capitol. "We started with infrastructure because that was a very important part of the whole thing and we felt it was really good that he was interested in infrastructure and put money aside as part of the stimulus."

Though leading Congressional Republicans have grown steadily more dismissive of Obama's stimulus package, Schwarzenegger continues to defend the plan, particularly the elements promoting energy conservation and renewable energy. "There is good stuff in there," he said.

"Some of my Republican colleagues are questioning how does it create jobs when you green government buildings. Well let me tell you, you don't green government buildings by just looking at it; you have to put a lot of people to work to green all those buildings. And you have to buy a lot of technology and you create a lot of jobs if you go and say all government buildings [must be retrofitted] That is all in the right direction."

Schwarzenegger can probably relate to Obama's problems attracting Republican votes. The plan the governor negotiated with state legislative Democratic leaders to eliminate the state's $42 billion budget deficit with a mix of spending cuts, tax increases and borrowing has been blocked because it can't attract the meager three votes from Senate Republicans it needs to clear the state constitution's two-thirds requirement for budget approval.

At a brief press conference Wednesday Schwarzenegger said that the legislative Republicans insisting that the state's deficit can be closed without tax increases need remedial math lessons. Amid the protracted standoff, the state has begun sending layoff notices to as many as 20,000 state workers and is preparing to shelve hundreds of infrastructure projects-which could throw out of work nearly another 100,000 people in a state where unemployment is already spiraling. Late Wednesday, the governor's aides expressed hope that they may be nearing the third Senate Republican vote they need-but hopes have been raised and dashed before during the 105 day impasse.

Schwarzenegger said he hasn't given any thought to whether he'd accept a job from Obama after his gubernatorial term expires in 2010, though he did say: "Even without having a position it would be my pleasure to do anything I can to help him be successful because it is our country." But while Schwarzenegger remains in office, cooperation makes political sense for both him and the president. Obama won nearly 61% of the vote in California last November, more than any candidate in either party since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936. And as the White House confronts the reality that relatively few Congressional Republicans have either an ideological inclination or electoral incentive to regularly compromise with them, spotlighting support from GOP governors will likely grow increasingly important to them.

Beyond infrastructure and energy, health care offers the other big opportunity for alliance between Schwarzenegger and Obama. Schwarzenegger formulated and passed through the State Assembly in late 2007 a universal coverage plan strikingly similar (with one major exception) to the one Obama offered as a candidate. State Senate Democrats killed the plan amid concerns about cost and intense opposition from the state AFL-CIO, which preferred a stiffer charge on businesses that don't insure their workers and opposed Schwarzenegger's requirement for all individuals to buy insurance, the so-called individual mandate. (The mandate is the one major difference with Obama, who didn't include it in his plan.) It didn't help that not a single Republican in either chamber backed the governor's plan.

But Schwarzenegger built a remarkably broad coalition for his proposal, which included most of the state's biggest insurers, a coalition of large employers led by Safeway, another business coalition centered on Silicon Valley, several local chambers of commerce, the SEIU (led by national president Andy Stern), AFSCME, consumer groups like the AARP and many key health provider groups. Schwarzenegger, in the interview, said that coalition "absolutely" is the model Obama will need to emulate to pass national health care reform-and that he's eager to help the president get started.  "We can show him exactly how to do it so it is not backfiring like the Hillary Clinton thing [in 1993] because they were not as inclusive maybe," Schwarzenegger said. The only reason he wasn't already "in the middle of working with them," Schwarzenegger said, is because Tom Daschle's withdrawal as Health and Human Services secretary has set back the administration's planning. "If he would be there I would there this coming week at the [national] governor's conference sitting down with them," Schwarzenegger continued. "We are ready to do it. We [will] share all the information. Because we want him to be successful and we want him to learn from what we had done. And maybe [former Massachusetts governor] Mitt Romney can be part of that because he has also done some great work up in Massachusetts."

Schwarzenegger offered one large cautionary note for Obama. He argued that the president is unlikely to build broad coalitions and avoid polarizing fights with business on his big health care and energy packages if he doesn't first build trust with industry through his initial decisions.

"I think that is the key thing in this whole thing- [that] the industries in America don't feel that Obama is selling them out to the environmentalists, that he finds a middle road, something that is doable for industry and is doable also for the environmentalists," Schwarzenegger said. "I think that is the key thing to get that trust across with a few decisions he makes right at the beginning that shows 'I'm in the middle, I'm not selling out this way or this way....and I am doing what is right for the country'....The same to the health care industry, the hospitals, everyone who deals with it [health care reform]."

I asked Schwarzenegger whether Obama was meeting that standard. "It's too new to say," he said as he stood up to leave the tent and return to the Sisyphean budget negotiations. "One just has to watch. But I think it is important to send that signal out. That's what has helped me."