President Barack Obama and Congressional leaders Wednesday took tentative steps toward reviving some semblance of bipartisanship before election-year considerations fully take hold in Washington, D.C.
The meeting, which included Obama, Vice President Joseph Biden, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was the first face-to-face meeting of the nation’s political leaders since July.
The meeting was billed by the White House as part of Obama’s “ongoing efforts to find common ground on legislative priorities that will create jobs and strengthen America’s economy.” Though Democrats were mum on the details, Republicans left the discussion feeling cautiously optimistic that Obama was sincere in his desire to bridge at least some of the gaps between the two parties and could, at least temporarily, break the gridlock on Capitol Hill.
“We had a positive lunch at the White House today ... particularly on jobs and on energy. And I like to think some of the bipartisan bills on jobs we’ve passed through the House will be taken up soon by the Democrats in the Senate,” Boehner told reporters Wednesday afternoon.
Boehner said Obama was also receptive to a package of jobs bills cobbled together by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), adding, “The president was very optimistic about moving that bill through the House ... [and] I think the president’s support of the JOBS Act was very welcome.”
McConnell agreed, calling the meeting a “very productive lunch” and saying that Obama’s call for bipartisan cooperation will hopefully mean the Senate turns “to bills that can actually pass and be signed into law.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney was equally upbeat, telling reporters, “It was a constructive and cordial meeting over lunch” that covered “a range of topics, both domestic and foreign. And they discussed ways that could build on the bipartisan cooperation that led to the payroll tax cut as well as unemployment insurance.
“We’ve been saying for a long time, and the president has been saying, that there is reason to hope that the conventional wisdom that holds that Congress held by the opposition party, or largely controlled by the opposition party, cannot get any business done with the president in an election year is wrong, and that if folks focus on the areas of agreement and work in a cooperative, bipartisan fashion, we can advance the American people’s agenda,” Carney added.
Reid declined to comment on the lunch upon returning to the Senate on Wednesday afternoon. Pelosi’s office also declined to comment — a sign Republicans took as further encouragement that Obama’s outreach was genuine. One Senate GOP aide said Pelosi appeared to have been taken off guard by Obama’s tone in the meeting and “didn’t look happy” with the discussion between the president and Republicans, particularly when it came to energy issues.
The relationship between Obama and the House and Senate has never been particularly strong during his presidency, but it became increasingly strained following the 2010 elections.
With the GOP in charge of the House, Obama found himself squaring off against often hostile, tea-party-inspired Republicans looking to either roll back his legislative and regulatory initiatives or to block enactment of any of his priorities.
Similarly, Republicans have had to contend with a Senate frozen in partisan deadlock and an administration that has appeared more concerned with using them as an election-year foil than in pursuing legislation.
Although Boehner and Obama maintained a good relationship through much of the last year — and made several attempts at cutting compromises on spending and the debt — neither side has so far been able to move away from their partisan positions, and communication almost completely ended in July.
Aside from a handful of brief phone calls to Boehner and McConnell, neither Republican leader has had any substantive contact with Obama since the debt ceiling debate, so the White House’s initial offer to meet with the four leaders last week surprised them and raised hopes for a thaw in the partisanship of the past 14 months. Still, Republican aides warned, it is far too soon to tell whether anything will ultimately come of the luncheon.
One veteran GOP aide speculated that the White House could simply have been “embarrassed they haven’t hosted one of these things in months” and that Obama may be looking to construct an image of attempting to work with Congress as part of his broader “do-nothing Congress” messaging strategy.
Carney was also guarded on whether a new era of bipartisanship — no matter how short-lived it might be — was in the offing, at one point jokingly saying, “Our approach to this is to expect continuity of behavior,” a line he had used in reference to North Korea earlier in his briefing with reporters.
Boehner, for his part, was unwilling to say whether he thought a significant shift in political attitudes was under way.
“We’ll see if there’s another lunch invitation anytime soon,” Boehner said.