Obama heads to Congress today, but will make nice only with Democrats

McClatchy Washington BureauJuly 29, 2013 

The Capitol dome under which Congress meets

TISH WELLS — McClatchy

— President Barack Obama will make a rare trek to Capitol Hill this week to huddle behind closed doors with lawmakers as they debate how to pay the government’s bills, rewrite the nation’s immigration laws and adjust the government’s surveillance programs.

But he will only meet with Democrats to push his agenda before Congress departs for its annual month-long vacation – a decision that has served to strain his already tense relations with Republicans.

“This president’s a good campaigner. We all recognize that,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said. “But, at some point, campaign season has to end – and the working-with-others season has to begin.”

Obama is scheduled to meet with House of Representatives and Senate Democrats for an hour each Wednesday morning. White House officials did not respond to questions about whether Obama will schedule similar meetings with Republicans or why he was not meeting with them this week.

Only a few months ago, Washington couldn’t stop talking about the president’s unprecedented outreach with Republicans. There were phone calls, dinners, meetings. He even appeared on Capitol Hill to meet with the Republican caucuses in the Senate and House.

He has continued to meet with individual Republican senators and invited all four congressional leaders – two Republicans and two Democrats – to the White House to talk about foreign policy a month ago. His staff also is meeting privately with a group of Republican senators to try to hash out fiscal issues.

Mo Elleithee, a veteran Democratic political consultant, said Obama has met with Republicans repeatedly – so much so that Democrats have started to feel a little neglected. “This is a president who has reached out his hand,” he said.

But while Obama and the Democratic-led Senate have agreed on a handful of issues since Obama’s so-called charm offensive, including the confirmation of some of the president’s nominees, that has not extended to the House. And the president appears to have grown frustrated.

Just last week, in a series of speeches in Illinois, Missouri and Florida, Obama criticized House Republicans for failing to pass an immigration bill and for drastically altering a farm bill so that it no longer funded food stamps.

“Over the last six months, this gridlock has gotten worse,” Obama said in speech in Galesburg, Ill. “I didn’t think that was possible.”

Obama’s meetings come as Congress meets for the final week – usually full of last-minute deal-making – before an extended recess. This year, however, no deals are expected, though Congress is likely to give final approval to a previous compromise that at least temporarily lowers student loan interest rates.

Topics for Wednesday’s meetings are likely to include the federal budget, immigration and government surveillance, but none of the issues is expected to be settled this week. Lawmakers are scheduled to leave Friday and not return until Sept. 9, with the start of the fiscal year looming.

Republicans, who run the House, and Democrats, who run the Senate, have not engaged in serious talks about a spending plan.

When they return, they will have about 15 legislative days to come up with a budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. So far, there has been no significant progress, let alone serious negotiations about longstanding disagreements over cutting spending and raising taxes. Both sides have accused the other of threatening to shut down the government by either failing to agree on spending levels for next year or raising the debt ceiling that will allow the government to pay its bills.

Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, declined to comment.

The meetings between Obama and Democratic lawmakers reinforce the sense “there’s a lot of talk, but people are talking to themselves and not to each other,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group. “I get the sense that too much of the dialogue is aimed at positioning each party to avoid blame.”

It appears almost certain Congress will pass a temporary fix to keep the government funded after Sept. 30. Democrats are wary of such legislation, because they don’t want to continue a series of automatic spending cuts dubbed the sequester that went into effect earlier this year. Many Republicans don’t want to pass such a measure unless its bars money to implement the still-controversial health care law.

Republicans appear divided over whether that’s a good idea, though. “No decision’s been made,” a terse Boehner said last week when asked about leadership strategy.

Email: akumar@mcclatchydc.com, dlightman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @anitakumar01, @LightmanDavid

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