President Obama and his closest aides have determined that their best chance of success in the next two years will depend on improved relationships on Capitol Hill, but their behind-the-scenes efforts are more focused on Obama’s own party rather than the Republicans who are about to take full charge of Congress in January.
Obama’s attention on congressional Democrats, allies whom he once regarded as needing little attention, marks a shift in his view on how to deal with Congress. The president now sees his path to success as running through Hill Democrats, a group that has been disenchanted by the treatment it has received from the White House over the years.
The remedial work has included frequent calls to Democratic leaders since the midterm elections and comes as Republicans prepare to take control of both chambers for the first time since Obama took office. While the president and GOP leaders have pledged to seek common ground, Obama’s use of executive action to alter immigration enforcement procedures and other steps have already angered Republicans, making significant legislative accomplishments more difficult.
And White House officials are looking to Hill Democrats as a defense against Republican efforts to undo key elements of Obama’s legislative legacy, including the Affordable Care Act, his immigration action and climate policy.
The president’s ability to sustain the vetoes he is likely to issue will depend on whether he is able to mend relations with congressional Democrats — many of whom blame the president for the party’s large midterm losses — and persuade Republican legislators to work with him in a way that has eluded the two parties for the past six years.
On Wednesday, the outreach effort began publicly as Obama hosted Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who will lead the Senate starting in January — in the Oval Office. It was the first time the two have met one on one for an extended period in more than four years. The most recent small gathering they had was with Vice President Biden, nearly 3
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart called the session “a good meeting” but did not release additional details.
By contrast, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) has been in near-constant communication with the White House since the midterm elections. He received back-to-back calls from Obama on Nov. 24 and 25, the first to discuss the administration’s handling of sanctions against Iran amid ongoing negotiations over that nation’s nuclear program, and the second to confer on the two men’s shared opposition to a pending proposal extending a series of federal tax breaks.
“In the past couple of months, I’ve seen heightened outreach,” Hoyer said in an interview Tuesday. “To some degree, we become even more relevant than we were before. Now he needs to rely on both houses to sustain a veto.”
Those are not the only calls Hoyer has received from the White House recently. Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough — who paid a visit to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Tuesday — called Hoyer on Nov. 13 to discuss an effort by lawmakers to force federal approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline and on Nov. 25 to talk about tax policy. The White House legislative-affairs staff also called him Nov. 6 to discuss immigration policy, a day after Obama called him at home in the evening to discuss immigration and ongoing efforts to counter the Islamic State.
Hoyer, who was also part of a group of Democratic leaders who had dinner with the president last month in advance of his immigration announcement, said those discussions have allowed him to have an impact on issues such as how the administration is working to fund its military strategy in Iraq and Syria.
“I do believe I was part of the conversation that has hopefully focused us all on accomplishing the president’s objectives,” he said.
Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), another White House ally, said there have been “substantial improvements” in the president’s legislative outreach, in large part because Obama’s director of legislative affairs, Katie Beirne Fallon, has revived an operation that had been moribund for an extended period.
“Just speaking as a Democratic senator, that was not a problem-free area,” Casey said, adding that he had this advice for the White House a few months ago: “My main suggestion is they needed to have more ‘What do you think?’ meetings instead of ‘Here’s what we’re doing’ meetings.”
Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), who co-chairs the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian-Americans, got McDonough to meet with about a dozen members of the bipartisan group in late May. Crowley said the group pushed for more of a focus on India. “Obviously, there has been a tremendous enhancement in that relationship,” he said.
The White House has dramatically stepped up its use of perks for lawmakers in the past year. At the president’s request, his staff is making more room for members on Air Force One (eight lawmakers flew with him to Las Vegas for his immigration event there last month), and he now gives a shout-out to nearly all lawmakers who attend his public speeches. This year his staff issued more than 4,270 invitations to come to the White House, travel with the president or attend his events, almost double the number handed out in 2012, and it is letting lawmakers use the President’s Box at the Kennedy Center more often.
Democrats are far more willing than Republicans to accept these overtures, White House aides said, though 30 new members of Congress — most from the GOP — and their families took a tour of the East Wing on Nov. 14. It ended with McDonough providing a personal tour of the Oval Office.
On the Republican side, much of the outreach has come from Cabinet members and other senior administration officials. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell hosted a November breakfast for the top Republicans and Democrats on committees that oversee her agency. They agreed to hold such a gathering “every quarter,” according to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who attended. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy called Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is slated to take over the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee next month, a couple of weeks ago to wish him a happy birthday.
And the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Rajiv Shah, talks so regularly with Inhofe that the senator alerted Shah to an orphanage in Liberia that was running low on food because of the Ebola epidemic. Shah was able to get a local rice miller the United States had supported to make a delivery.
Recent history has produced some skeptics about the chances for success with members of either party.
Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.), who is retiring after 12 terms, said that with the exception of two House members from the Chicago area, “no member has indicated they can just call the White House” and talk to the president, the way many did under President Bill Clinton.
“I don’t think they’re going to improve,” Moran said of congressional relations. “He hasn’t been willing or able to do things with members that they could take credit for with their constituents, and part of that is because of his opposition to earmarks.”
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who will chair the House Ways and Means Committee next year and plays a key role on issues such as corporate tax policy and immigration, said he talks to McDonough and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew “occasionally, not frequently. These guys don’t focus on building a lot of relationships.”
Obama’s decision to move ahead on immigration, Ryan added, “just sliced months off the political capital” they had left to spend.
On Wednesday, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) told reporters the administration’s threat to veto the tax-break extensions derailed the deal Republicans and Democrats were drafting.
“The president’s been there now for six years — he should not exhibit that kind of inexperience,” he said. “And I’m one of the guys who likes the president, but he’s been tremendously disappointing to me.”
Still, several Republicans said they believed deals with the president are possible next year, on issues including infrastructure spending and possibly tax reform.
“He’s showing all the things he can do without Congress, and that’s not encouraging. But he’s got a Congress that’s committed to working on serious issues,” Alexander said. “If he wants to come along and lead the band, he’s welcome to do it.”
On Wednesday, the president promised again to try.
“So the good news, despite the fact that obviously the midterm elections did not turn out exactly as I had hoped, is that there remains enormous areas of potential bipartisan action and progress,” he said at the Business Roundtable’s D.C. headquarters.
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.