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It’s only been two months since Republicans took control of the House, and Speaker John Boehner is already earning a reputation for telling President Barack Obama, “No.”
The Ohio Republican last week turned down a White House invitation to attend a state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao. A week earlier, Boehner declined an offer from Obama to fly with him on Air Force One to attend the Tucson, Ariz., memorial ceremony. And unlike last year’s House GOP retreat, the president was not asked by Republican leaders to make an appearance at this year’s getaway.
Boehner’s recent penchant for rebuffing Obama began just days after the November elections, when he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) canceled their first post-election bipartisan meeting with the president because of “scheduling conflicts in organizing their caucuses.” The meeting was later rescheduled.
The scrambling that ensued over that meeting infuriated some Congressional Democrats who said Republicans were sending the wrong signal by canceling on the president, especially at a time when the public is clamoring for bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.
“When the president calls and asks a Member of Congress to meet at the White House, you go,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said at the time. “You put down everything else, you cancel all your other appointments and you go. This is the leader of the free world and the commander in chief of our nation. You do not say, ‘Let’s reschedule.’”
But Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said the Speaker, installed Jan. 5, has never broken any commitments with Obama. Both the November meeting and the Air Force One trip were announced without taking Boehner’s schedule into account, he said.
Members who traveled with the president to Arizona included: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Arizona GOP Reps. Jeff Flake, Trent Franks, Ben Quayle, Paul Gosar and David Schweikert, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Assistant Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
Buck argued that the White House — not Boehner — is to blame for any perceived snub. Obama hasn’t done enough to reach out to the House Republican majority, he said.
“This is another example of poor communication between the White House and us,” he said.
In the case of the missed state dinner, Buck said Boehner “does not typically attend those events,” having been to only one in the past 20 years. McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) did not attend either.
As for House Republicans not inviting Obama to their annual retreat this year, Buck said that decision came from Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling (Texas), not Boehner.
Pressed on why Boehner did not insist on inviting Obama in a show of bipartisanship, Buck said the onus is on the White House to take the lead in forging a relationship with House Republicans.
“If we’re all going to work together, you might expect the president and White House to reach out to us, and they have yet to do that in any way this year,” he said. “There has been zero communication from the White House to us, outside of basic issues of scheduling.”
White House officials declined to comment. But Press Secretary Robert Gibbs last week wondered aloud why the Speaker turned down Obama’s invitation to Hu’s state dinner.
“I don’t know what their response was in declining the invitation,” Gibbs said during a briefing. “We hope that because of the importance of the relationship that they would attend.”
Senior House Democratic aides speculated that Boehner is intentionally backing out of meetings with Obama to send a signal that he is going to use his role as Speaker to play hardball with the president. Boehner hasn’t been shy about how he intends to deal with the White House over the next two years: In a Dec. 12 interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Boehner said he is open to finding “common ground” with the president but will not “compromise” with him.
“I reject the word,” he said.
“One snub is an accident; three or four, well, that’s a pattern,” one top House Democratic aide said. “Bipartisanship is a two-way street, but Republicans only see it going one way.”
A House Democratic leadership aide conceded that Boehner has softened his tone somewhat in the weeks since the Tucson shootings but said he still seems to be having “a really difficult time” transitioning from campaign mode to governing.
“The Speaker has to realize he’s no longer the leader of just a party. He’s the head of the House of Representatives, and there are duties you expect the Speaker to be doing,” this aide said, specifically citing the state dinner with Hu. “I can only imagine the outrage on the right if Speaker Pelosi had snubbed a Republican president in this manner. People would be foaming at the mouth.”
Hu and Obama were both asked about Boehner’s absence at the state dinner during a press briefing last week, and both declined to comment.
“Who will attend, who will not attend and for what reasons, I think President Obama is certainly in a better position to answer that question,” Hu said, drawing laughter for leaving it to Obama to field the question, which he did not take.
Not that the president has always kept with his plans to meet with Republicans: During last year’s State of the Union address, he proposed holding monthly bipartisan, bicameral meetings with Capitol Hill leaders. He only ended up holding five.
A senior Senate Republican aide said the fact that Boehner missed the state dinner isn’t as important as the fact that he is visibly making an effort to tamp down partisan rhetoric in his Conference. This aide called on the White House to do more to bring Congressional Republicans to the table.
“It was a major problem in the 111th Congress and a stark departure from the courtesy that leaders of both parties received from previous White Houses,” the GOP aide said. “Here’s to hoping things improve in that regard.”