President Barack Obama is hoping to reprise his role as deal-maker-in-chief in the budget standoff simmering on Capitol Hill.
But his eleventh-hour entry into the debate leaves him in a far less desirable position than when he deftly ushered through a bipartisan tax deal in December: The only conversations happening right now between Senate Democratic and House Republican leaders are about whose fault it will be if the negotiations fail.
After Congress narrowly averted a government shutdown this week, Obama announced Wednesday that he is dispatching Vice President Joseph Biden, White House Chief of Staff William Daley and Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew to “begin meeting immediately” with Hill leaders to hash out a broader budget for the year. The announcement came within minutes of the Senate passing a two-week stopgap continuing resolution to keep the government funded past Friday.
Democratic leaders and the White House were hoping to convene today on the Senate side, but they were awaiting confirmation from Republicans.
“I’m pleased that Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together and passed a plan that will cut spending and keep the government running for the next two weeks. But we cannot keep doing business this way. Living with the threat of a shutdown every few weeks is not responsible, and it puts our economic progress in jeopardy,” Obama said in a statement.
The president said any final deal should cut spending and reduce deficits while supporting economic growth. In addition, it “should be bipartisan, it should be free of any party’s social or political agenda, and it should be reached without delay,” he said.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) signaled Wednesday that they’re not about to agree to a long-term compromise until Senate Democrats produce a spending plan of their own. House Republicans passed a long-term CR last month, but Senate Democrats have refused to take it up because of the programs hit by its sweeping $61 billion in cuts.
McConnell said he was open to listening to what White House officials had to say about the budget process but that negotiations would be more appropriate if Senate Democrats passed their own proposal first.
“How do you start a conversation where one house has spoken but the other house hasn’t?” Boehner asked. “Where’s the starting point?”
Boehner said it “would be fine with me” if negotiators wanted to use the House-passed bill as a starting point.
“The House position is perfectly clear,” he said, a day after he demanded in an e-mailed statement to know, “Where is Sen. [Harry] Reid’s plan to cut spending?”
That idea was shot down immediately by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who said he would “never” agree to the budget that passed the House — namely because of its massive cuts to education and research — and vowed to single-handedly filibuster any plan that included those cuts.
It seemed like Republicans “literally took a hacksaw to brain surgery” in making their cuts, the Illinois Democrat said.
Durbin said it would be Boehner’s fault if the government shuts down; he accused the Speaker of taking a hard line and insisting on more short-term spending measures if GOP demands are not met.
“If this government shuts down because John Boehner says two weeks or else, I don’t think that reflects very well on him,” Durbin said.
Boehner certainly faces challenges. The new Speaker is tasked with reining in the demands of his conservative flank, many of them freshmen who rode into office on promises of slashing spending.
Rep. Steve King, a co-founder of the Tea Party Caucus, described the budget negotiations as a “long dance up to the line in the sand.” He disputed the notion that Biden — whom Obama tapped in December to work with McConnell to reach consensus on a tax package — could bring the two sides together this time around.
“Joe Biden just doesn’t strike me as a deal-maker,” the Iowa Republican said. “But we shall see.”
In the end, it boils down to “what will the president do and what will the president veto,” King said. “And if we knew the answer to that, we could make our decision in here and move on.”
Another tea party ally, freshman Rep. Trey Gowdy, said he doesn’t think Obama and Congress can reach a deal.
“It’s always good to sit down and talk so that there’s no miscommunication about where people’s positions are, but I would be very surprised if the meetings turned out to be positive from the standpoint of reaching an agreement,” the South Carolina Republican said.
Obama announced his plan to hold meetings in a statement earlier in the day — a move that caught at least one GOP leader off guard. Asked which Members would be included in negotiations, a McConnell aide replied: “Who knows? We found out about it the same time you did.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said to expect the meetings to take place “soon” and suggested Obama has already shown his willingness to compromise with Republicans by agreeing to the $4 billion in cuts in the short-term spending bill and identifying another $4 billion that he could support.
“We have met them halfway,” Carney said during a Wednesday briefing. “We expect that those who are participating in the negotiations in Congress will also demonstrate a willingness to find common ground by, again, moving toward the middle.”
But Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck wasted no time pushing back on that claim.
“As a reminder, we cut $61 billion from current spending,” Buck said. “Also, Democrats — especially those at the White House — have yet to provide any plan for spending cuts for the rest of the fiscal year.”
“A prize goes to the first person who can ascertain a lucid explanation for how the White House has met us ‘halfway’ on spending cuts,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.