President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) broke political bread Wednesday for the first time in more than seven months, meeting face-to-face along with other congressional leaders to see what pieces of economic legislation might have a chance at passage before the election season completely consumes Washington.
Once a budding power partnership that sought a “grand bargain” on the federal debt — beginning with a friendly 18 holes in June — the president-speaker relationship has been on ice since last summer’s bitter negotiations over increasing the Treasury’s borrowing limit broke down several times. A final compromise had to be brokered by Vice President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Over a salmon lunch Wednesday, Boehner and McConnell met with Obama and Biden, as well as Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “It was a very good lunch. I’m encouraged by the attitude,” Boehner told reporters Wednesday afternoon, alongside McConnell.
Ostensibly meant to discuss legislation going forward, it was the first such meeting for Boehner and McConnell with the president since July 23, when the “Big Four” leaders met with Obama in a last-ditch effort to raise the debt ceiling. The evening before, July 23, Boehner had phoned Obama to inform him — for the second time in two weeks — that he could not continue talks toward a grand deal to shave more than $4 trillion off future federal debts. The president and speaker held dueling press conferences, shouting at one another through the television screen. “Can they agree to anything?” a visibly angry Obama asked at the time.
Wednesday, the two sides sang a much different tune, laying the groundwork for what could be a few small pieces of legislation that might actually win approval. “It was an opportunity for the president to meet with Republican and Democratic leaders to talk about other areas where we can cooperate and work together to help grow the economy and enhance job creation and pursue the American people’s agenda,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters.
Boehner said that he had received backing from Obama for legislation that House Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.) unveiled Tuesday, a collection of six bills that have already passed at the committee level or the full House, all with wide partisan support. Those bills — each of which is designed to help small businesses raise more capital by easing Securities and Exchange Commission regulations — have individually stalled in the Senate along with a couple dozen others.
Boehner and McConnell also pressed the Democrats on energy legislation allowing for more domestic oil and gas production, but could not reach accord on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast.
Despite the cordial tones, the political reality is the two sides remain far apart on the big issues of the day. More than $5 trillion in automatic tax hikes and spending cuts are set to begin Jan. 1, but neither side anticipates any serious talk on those major issues until after the elections. Boehner said that they did not cover the “whole waterfront of issues” that are pending, sticking merely to the smaller issues that already have bipartisan support.
Carney also said that, on the smaller legislation, Republicans might be feeling political heat to produce results beyond obstructing Obama’s agenda. “If the only thing they have to offer is, I blocked everything I could that President Obama proposed, maybe that will work in some districts, but in some it won’t be a particularly compelling reason to send that member back to Washington,” he said.
After the more modest debt deal was approved in early August, Obama pivoted last fall away from congressional negotiations and has been running his re-election campaign very much against the dysfunction in Congress, aiming most of his fire at Boehner’s House Republican conference. A White House spokesman two months ago declared that the year-long extension of the payroll tax holiday and unemployment insurance — signed into law last week — was the only “must-do” legislation left for Obama to concern himself with.
Still, just sitting in the same room was a step forward for Obama and congressional GOP leaders. “We’ll see whether there’s another lunch invitation anytime soon,” Boehner said.