When they met secretly in 2011, President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner sent Washington into a frenzy of speculation about the prospect of a “grand bargain” on the budget brokered by the top Democrat and the top Republican in town.
Nowadays, when these two powerful political figures sit down together, their aides and allies seek to lower expectations.
That’s how it went Tuesday inside the Oval Office as Obama and Boehner (Ohio) huddled for an hour, covering a long list of important subjects ranging from paving highways to drawing down troops in Afghanistan. Each leader has said publicly that action is required, particularly to spark job growth, but all sides agree that no big deals will be emerging from any Obama-Boehner framework.
By early afternoon White House press secretary Jay Carney was quickly adding context, playing down the importance of Obama having cordial relations with Republicans on Capitol Hill. Boehner’s aides cast the meeting in the requisite “constructive conversation” mold but offered no hint that it might lead to an expansion of the very light policy agenda emerging for 2014.
“Everybody around here has the feeling that for the rest of the year, the high-level leadership get-together like that is not likely to produce any substantive legislation. I think it’s just the nature of this place,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a retiring Georgia Republican who is close friends with Boehner and tried last spring to forge a bond with Obama.
And if the diminished expectations were not clear enough, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) both rejected any likelihood of Congress tackling the complex issue of tax reform, because of a standoff over Democratic demands for more revenue from the wealthy.
Tax reform was always a long shot for this year, although it had been one of the central reasons for optimism in previous Obama-Boehner talks.
Hopes are low on a host of other big issues as well, including immigration and an increase in the minimum wage.
This is partly a result of Washington opting for an unusually early end to legislative activity before the November elections; more important, it’s a result of two previous failures by Obama and Boehner to craft a fiscal deal.
First in the summer of 2011 and again in the post-election glow of December 2012, the two leaders spent countless hours in the Oval Office, in the president’s private quarters and even on the golf course, hashing out grand plans — each of which ultimately got shelved in favor of small-bore compromises that put off big decisions until some undetermined day in the future.
By Christmas Day 2012, most senior lawmakers had reached a conclusion: Those two just can’t cut a deal on their own. Democrats blamed the far-right wing of the House GOP for not allowing Boehner to negotiate a potential tax increase in exchange for entitlement-program reforms; Republicans accused Obama of moving the goal posts after hearing from his Democratic allies.
Ultimately, Boehner almost lost the speaker’s gavel in a revolt in January 2013. One of the prices he paid for retaining power was an implicit guarantee that his days as a negotiator with the president were done.
In a briefing with reporters Tuesday, Carney suggested that many people overestimate the importance of the rapport between the president and Boehner.
“I think it’s a press misconception that the success or failure of legislation in Congress depends on the relationship between a president and a speaker, or a president and a leader in Congress,” Carney said. “The president’s relationship with the speaker, as the speaker has said and the president has said, is — has always been solid. And the problem we’ve had in the past here in Washington has been often the dictation that has been provided by a segment of the House Republican Congress over what the House of Representatives would or would not do.”
At multiple times during the briefing, Carney made a point of noting that Obama’s efforts last year to reach out socially to lawmakers — including golf with Chambliss and others, multiple dinners, and many meetings with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough — failed to produce any sweeping legislative agreements.
“Despite our, I think, persistent efforts last year, all the meetings and coffees and dinners and the like — to try to test the theory that Republicans were willing to have discussions about this, despite those efforts [it produced] nothing out of the Republicans,” he said.
Boehner and Obama have talked privately more than the public record would suggest, according to several aides. Carney alluded to that fact Tuesday, saying, “I would simply say that we do not read out every conversation and meeting that the president has with members of Congress.”
But even as Carney called the meeting “good and constructive” and said Obama considered it “a useful conversation,” he noted the multiple media reports that Boehner has “said that he would not ever negotiate with the president of the United States again.”
“We are looking for a partner in Congress to advance part of that agenda, but the president won’t stand still just because Congress is standing still, if Congress decides, or if Republicans decide, not to take action,” he said.
Election-year politics does not always mean gridlock. The last time Congress passed overhauls of immigration laws and the tax code was in 1986, just months before momentous midterm elections that flipped the Senate majority. And in the summer of 1996, months before a presidential election, President Bill Clinton and the GOP Congress agreed to a massive rewrite of welfare laws.
Now, however, after three years of a divided Congress that has governed from crisis to crisis, each side seems to have dug in for what could be eight more months of minor skirmishes over small bills meant mostly to appeal to key voting blocs.
“It’s just tough for folks to vote on complex issues in an election year,” Chambliss said.
There seems to be little that Obama and Boehner can do, or want to do, to alter that situation.