washingtonpost.com
What if They Held Breakout Sessions and Everyone Broke Out?

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Holding a "fiscal responsibility summit" at the White House in the middle of a government spending spree is a bit like having an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at a frat house on homecoming weekend.

This could explain the sparse attendance at yesterday's session. Economic Recovery Advisory Board Chairman Paul Volcker, penciled in to lead the session on taxes, didn't come. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, listed as a moderator of the health-care panel, was also missing, as was Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, who had been tapped as a leader of the procurement session. Another mysterious absence: CIA Director Leon Panetta, the Clinton budget director, who was expected to lead the budget panel.

"It is wonderful to see the speaker here," President Obama said at the start of his remarks. True: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was in the first row, having walked in 10 minutes after the program began.

"And," the president continued, "we've got, uh, our representative -- I don't see Harry here." Also true: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had another engagement, across town at the Newseum.

The attendance list distributed by the White House came with excuses helpfully printed after the names. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.): "Will not join breakout sessions." Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.): "Arriving at 2:30," 90 minutes late. Pelosi: "Will not join breakout sessions."

The president, assembling the summiteers in the East Room, gave them their orders: "I want you to question each other, challenge each other," he said. "I look forward to hearing the results when you report back."

The participants then filed out into the main foyer of the White House for juice, coffee and piano music. Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), a member of the Republican leadership, was seen fleeing before the breakout sessions began.

The lawmakers got right to work. In the health-care session, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said he had considered giving up martinis to improve his health but "I was elated when I found it didn't make any difference." Alcohol was also a topic in the budget session, where Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) proposed that the president solve the problem by locking everybody in a room with three bottles of gin.

When Obama announced the summit last month, it had the sound of something big. But the administration didn't settle on a date until recently, and some participants didn't receive invitations until Friday. According to one report, not denied by the White House, Obama dropped plans to announce a new Social Security task force at the gathering.

There were signs yesterday of the hasty arrangements. In the tax-reform session, Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) arrived to discover that his name tag identified him as Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.). White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, listed as one of the moderators of the procurement panel, arrived just 10 minutes before the end.

"Oh, nice of you to join us," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Emanuel said nothing.

But Emanuel didn't need to say anything. The summit was about symbolism -- conveying the sense that Obama, at a time of fiscal profligacy, cares about fiscal restraint -- and by that measure, it succeeded admirably.

"Today, I'm pledging to cut the deficit we inherited by half by the end of my first term in office," the president told the attendees. This remarkable feat would be made possible only by the fact that the current year's deficit was an eye-popping $1.3 trillion and rising when Obama took over; even half that amount would still be a record.

After two hours away from the cameras in their breakout sessions, the summit-goers rejoined Obama. To nobody's surprise, they announced no major breakthroughs. But, with television cameras rolling, they gave Obama something almost as valuable: lavish praise for the summit. It was "very, very productive" (Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.), "a terrific start in the White House" (Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.), and "all of us are enormously grateful" (Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.). Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) likened Obama's outreach to the biblical "Parable of the Sower."

Even Republicans gushed. "It's a great opportunity, I think, for us to really come together on some of these very, very big issues," said Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the No. 2 House Republican.

A couple of Republicans in the audience needled Obama, but the president, from the stage, easily put down their challenges.

"Your helicopter is now going to cost as much as Air Force One," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) chided.

"The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me," Obama answered, to laughter. "Of course, I've never had a helicopter before."

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) complained that Pelosi had shut Republicans out from legislative talks. "This is a good first step," he said of the summit. "But if this is all we do, it's a sterile step."

"The minority has to be constructive," Obama told the congressman, and not "just want to blow the thing up."

For all the no-shows and the lack of planning, the summit had, in the end, provided something of value: a rare, public back-and-forth between the president, lawmakers and interest groups. No doubt some of the no-shows will wish they had been there -- and, luckily, they may get a second chance.

"We've scheduled a health-care summit next week," the president told the summiteers. "Not that I've got summititis here."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company