Obama and Boehner: In Need of Couples Counseling?

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - January 14, 2013

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By Caitlin Huey-Burns

They are outsiders of sorts with a fondness for golf and cigarettes -- and they’ve both stated publicly many times that they know current federal budget practices are unsustainable. But President Barack Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner cannot seem to successfully complete even the most basic negotiation.

Will that change in the 113th Congress?

So far, the signs aren’t promising. The president and the speaker emerged from the latest fiscal debacle with their perceptions of the other guy both confirmed and soured: Boehner cannot deliver his conference; Obama does not negotiate with Republicans in good faith.

The two politicians, each the most powerful in his respective party, might not personally care for one another anymore -- if they ever did – and their relationship has, at best, been a shotgun marriage. (Or, as Rep. James Lankford, a member of the GOP House leadership, told RCP in describing House Republicans’ relationship with the White House: “I’m not sure we’re even dating.”)

But for at least the next couple of years, the two sides are stuck with each other, which means Boehner and Obama are stuck as well. Boehner was recently sworn in for another term as speaker, and Obama will take the presidential oath for the second time next weekend.

In February, the president will deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. The speaker’s invitation to the president went beyond the tradition of formally inviting Obama. In his letter, Boehner stated that the United States “continues to face immense challenges, and the American people expect us to work together in the new year to find meaningful solutions.

“This will require a willingness to seek common ground as well as presidential leadership,” Boehner continued. “For that reason, the Congress and the Nation would welcome an opportunity to hear your plan and specific solutions for addressing America’s great challenges.”

He’s not kidding about the challenges that lie ahead. By March, Congress and the White House will have to find a suitable way to continue to fund the government, raise the ceiling on the government’s borrowing limit, and re-arrange broad, deep cuts to the nation’s defense and domestic budget. The looming showdown, like the previous one, will probably flirt dangerously with the deadline and rattle financial markets. The faith and credit of the United States is on the line again, adding even more pressure.

Boehner and congressional Republicans consider Democratic demands for additional revenue a non-starter. They partially capitulated on taxes during the fiscal cliff-averting deal, they argue, and in the 113th Congress their priority will be to rein in federal spending.

“Prior to this president, no president had ever run a deficit over a trillion dollars,” says David Winston, a veteran pollster for House Republicans. “[Obama’s] negative impact on the economy is his Achilles’ heel.”

Winston and several influential Republican members of Congress say they recognize that GOP influence is constrained not just by a Democratic Senate and White House, but by the Republicans’ own negative image these days. Their aim is to start improving that image by discussing proposed federal spending curbs more positively -- to explain not what they are taking away but what they are giving back.

That may be easier said than done, but the speaker perceives two pressure points in his quest to force the president to address runaway federal spending. First, Republicans plan to use the debt ceiling as leverage to demand equal or greater spending cuts for the amount of credit raised. Boehner’s rule of thumb is $1 in cuts for every $1 of credit raised, over the next decade.

So far, the White House has given no indication of budging on this point. Asked by RCP whether Obama plans to negotiate with Boehner directly in the coming year, White House press secretary Jay Carney replied, “The president believes that as part of our system of government, the executive branch engages with and negotiates with the legislative branch, and that will continue on a range of issues, not just economic and fiscal matters.”

But Carney quickly added a caveat. “He will not negotiate over Congress' responsibility to pay the bills that Congress has incurred.”

The second area where Republicans see opportunity is the “sequester” process. Steep budget cuts are now timed to kick in automatically March 1-- unless the White House and Congress can agree on an alternative plan. Boehner has said publicly that Obama’s dread of sequester gives him leverage, and he has named what he wants in return: Democrats’ cooperation with a plan to control the rising cost of federal entitlement programs.

The Democratic-controlled Senate might be a vehicle for future deals between the White House and Capitol Hill, but the partisan polarization within the new Congress may be even greater than in the old.

Boehner’s inability to keep House Republicans in lock-step is well-documented. The gist of the problem is a Republican caucus, many members of which are second-term Tea Party proponents who believe that holding a majority in half of one of three co-equal branches of government should give them an equal say.

From inside that restive GOP caucus, however, the prevailing view is that the country is spiraling down a deep spending crevasse from which there would be no climbing out.

“If we don’t use the opportunity where we have a divided Congress and White House to try and get the best thing for the future . . ." Florida Republican Rep. Tom Rooney told RCP, his voice trailing off in dismay. And so, he said, the time to use what leverage the GOP has is now: "Two generations from now, we can say we were the ones who helped assist saving Social Security and preserving Medicare.”

Similar dynamics are at work in the Senate -- and in both parties. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell helped the nation avert the fiscal cliff by cutting a deal with Vice President Joe Biden. By way of thanks, McConnell was greeted in the New Year by attack ads from a conservative advocacy group asking “which side” the Kentucky Republican is on.

Across the aisle, Majority Leader Harry Reid keeps urging the president to use the 14th Amendment to unilaterally raise the debt limit, a move of doubtful constitutionality that the president has already ruled out. In the House, Boehner’s Democratic counterpart, Nancy Pelosi, has echoed Reid’s call. Pelosi has also said flatly that Democrats want a bigger tax increase than the one forged by Biden and McConnell in the lame-duck session.

The upshot of all this is two leaders, Obama and Boehner, who don’t make very good music together anyway, and who are constantly being heckled from their respective peanut galleries.

It takes a toll. “The president has shown no appetite for challenging his own party,” says former Rep. Steve LaTourette, a close Boehner ally from Ohio who retired this month after serving nearly two decades in the House. LaTourette says Boehner thinks the president is “thin-skinned” and is “easy to get fired up.”

“The president had an opportunity to really provide leadership and negotiate in good faith, or to create an atmosphere that was going to mark the next two years as a very poisonous two years for his presidency,” chimed in Ohio Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi, another close ally of Boehner’s and a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee.

“One hundred percent of House Republicans have no faith or trust in this president,” Tiberi added. “The way he has handled this issue since the election has been, quite frankly, disgusting.”

Yet for all their remonstrating about Obama’s supposed unwillingness to buck congressional Democrats, most House Republicans concede that presenting a divided front -- as they did during the lame-duck session of Congress -- makes the Democrats’ task easier.

“The president wants to fight these battles on his terms and he is very good at it,” says LaTourette. “The difficulty that we’ve had and Boehner has had is that he could fight the fight and establish turf on his own, but he can’t get 218 guys to support his own program.”

Without that unanimity, LaTourette added, “it’s like sending him down to the White House naked.”

But John Boehner’s being rhetorically naked -- or fully clothed -- when he goes calling on the president is not really the issue, White House officials insist. The two sides just don’t agree on much, including spending priorities and tax policy.

“You know,” Jay Carney said, “this is not personal.”

White House correspondent Alexis Simendinger contributed to this report. 

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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