You can thank House Speaker John Boehner for the outreach to Congress now being mounted by President Obama. The lunches, dinners, and schmoozing by a president not known as a schmoozer are the fallout from Boehner's announcement that he was finished with one-on-one talks with the president, according to White House officials.
It is no accident that Obama's trips to the Jefferson Hotel and Capitol Hill followed soon after the Ohio Republican, in an interview with the Associated Press, declared he was done with personal negotiations. He acknowledged in the Feb. 14 interview that his own caucus protested the results of early tax talks he had held with Obama.
"Frankly," Boehner told AP, "every time I've gotten into one of these high-profile negotiations, you know, it's my rear end that got burnt."
The White House read that interview and realized that if the president were to achieve any part of an ambitious legislative agenda, they would have to open better lines of communication to rank-and-file members of the House and Senate, officials said. They came to believe they had no other choice, particularly since the AP interview confirmed promises Boehner made in private to House Republicans in January that he would favor "regular order" over private efforts to hammer out any "grand bargain" on fiscal matters.
Only 19 days after the interview, Obama had dinner at the Jefferson Hotel with 12 Republican senators, an event that required the president to go much farther than the short nine-tenths of a mile that separate the White House from the hotel. For a president long viewed as aloof by members of Congress, it represented a tacit admission that he had heard the criticism of the way he dealt with Capitol Hill. The next day, he had lunch with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. Then came this week's trips to the Hill.
"We have a speaker of the House who says he is not going to negotiate anymore," said a senior White House official, putting that as the top reason for the sudden flurry of outreach. "Why not go to someone else who does want to negotiate?"
Just as influential to White House thinking as the Boehner declaration was a column by Ezra Klein published in The Washington Post on March 1. Klein reported on a background session he attended with "one of the most respected Republicans in Congress." Klein found that this lawmaker did not know what Obama had actually proposed on entitlement reform. The article left a lasting impression on advisers to the president, giving them hope that perhaps it would be productive to have the president himself explain his positions to senators and House members.
"Just because the president has said it a lot of times and just because National Journal has reported what he said a lot of times, we realized that that does not mean that many Republicans are aware of what he's willing to do," the official said. "He can take advantage of this opportunity to tell them in person what he is willing to do."
Another reason for the outreach, the official said, is that the White House believes there are some Republicans who can support parts of the president's agenda. "These are people who have shown a willingness to compromise with the White House," he said. "Should we not follow up on that?"
This does not mean that the president has given up on working with Boehner and the Republican leadership, the official added, insisting the meetings should not be cast as an effort to ignore the speaker. "We are not trying to go around the leadership. This is a robust effort to reach rank-and-file members, but it is no substitute for engagement with the leadership."
In defending the sudden flurry of meetings with members, the White House also factored in the timing, viewing this as a rare respite from all the recent crisis-driven episodes.
"These meetings come out of unique circumstances. So much of this past year we have found ourselves in the midst of one fiscal crisis after another, with network countdown clocks and constant talk of deadlines," the official said.
"For the first time in a while, we are not in some pressurized situation," the official said. "We just thought this gives us a little space for a constructive conversation."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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