Obama and Boehner: In Need of Couples Counseling?

Obama and Boehner: In Need of Couples Counseling?

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - January 14, 2013

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.”

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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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