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Obama keeps Congress at arm's-length in government shutdown

President Obama's approach before and since the government shutdown stands in contrast to the engagement that marked the 2011 debt ceiling debate.

October 02, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey and Christi Parsons
  • House Speaker John A. Boehner speaks to reporters after he and other congressional leaders attended a White House meeting on the budget standoff. President Obama did not make any statement afterward.
House Speaker John A. Boehner speaks to reporters after he and other congressional… (Jewel Samad / AFP/Getty…)

WASHINGTON — In 2011, with the government dangling on the edge of default, President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) engaged in nearly daily negotiations. There were regular phone calls, talks and red wine at the White House. There were blow-ups, make-ups and then a deal.

Now, two years later, Obama waited more than 40 hours after the federal government was shut down to invite Boehner and the other top congressional leaders to the White House for a sit-down, which appeared to involve little negotiating.

As he deals with a standoff that could scramble the politics of his second term, Obama has adopted a new approach to Congress: He is keeping his distance.

LIVE BLOG: Action and inaction on Shutdown Day 3

The shift from hands-on to arm's-length is at the core of the White House strategy, a deliberate change made easier by the nature of the budget stalemate. Republicans are divided over the tactics that led to the first government shutdown in 17 years. Boehner is driving, but tea party conservatives are the GPS.

That has allowed White House officials to argue that they have no one with whom to negotiate. Wading into the fracas without an empowered negotiating partner would just leave the president muddied, said a senior administration official, who asked not to be identified to discuss White House strategy.

Keeping the president out of the fray comes with risks. Republicans have cast Obama as a leader who has shirked his role. "Though a prolific speechmaker, POTUS has failed his most basic obligation to participate in the process of governing our nation," Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) said in a Twitter statement Wednesday.

As congressional leaders emerged from the almost 90-minute White House meeting, Boehner kept up that line of attack. Americans "expect their leaders to come together," he said, but the president "will not negotiate."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) both responded that Boehner would "not take 'yes' for an answer."

FULL COVERAGE: The U.S. government shutdown

Reid also signaled that the stakes in the standoff had risen. He suggested that he now wanted a deal that not only would provide money to keep federal agencies running, but would also solve the next potential crisis — a showdown over the federal debt limit, which faces a mid-October deadline.

"We have a debt ceiling staring us in the face," Reid said.

Obama did not speak after the meeting, but before it, he made clear that he would not negotiate until after legislation was passed to reopen the government and raise the debt limit.

"Then I am prepared to have a reasonable, civil negotiation around a whole slew of issues," he said in an interview with CNBC.

LIVE UPDATES: Day three of the shutdown

Republicans greeted the invitation to the White House with skepticism. "We're pleased the president finally recognizes that his refusal to negotiate is indefensible," said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck. "It's unclear why we'd be having this meeting if it's not meant to be a start to serious talks between the two parties."

But some Democrats, who have pushed Obama to take a harder line with House Republicans, were wary of the president's overture. They argued that such efforts had served primarily to provide political cover for Boehner, when he could not deliver the votes.

Reid, perhaps the leading proponent of the White House's hands-off approach, distanced himself from what appeared to be a slight diversion from that strategy.

"I've been invited to a meeting; I'm going to go to the meeting," Reid said.

But the White House is sensitive to the perception that it is taking the advice of former Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who on Tuesday suggested that Obama "just sit back and watch."

On Wednesday, the White House announced Obama would cut short a planned trip to Asia, a sign that he believed watching the crisis unfold from half a world away would make him appear too disconnected.

The administration also moved to defuse a potential public relations problem, with the National Park Service announcing that veterans groups would be allowed to visit the World War II memorial on the National Mall even though it and all other national parks and monuments are officially closed to visitors.

At the Capitol, the GOP-led House again moved to restore some of the most high-profile and politically popular federal functions. The chamber voted to reinstate money for national parks and museums, the District of Columbia government and the National Institutes of Health. Senate Democrats have no immediate plans to take up the bills.

Boehner sought to calm moderates who want to reopen government and asked them to have patience. "Now that we've made the jump, lit ourselves on fire, we've got to stay together," said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare).

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