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Obama Drops Ceremonial Pen, Angering GOP

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
GOP Sens. Tom Coburn (above) and Lamar Alexander decried the White House’s stance on ceremonial signings as a sign of playing politics.

Senate Republicans are bristling that the president has cut down on one of his ceremonial duties: signing bills in public.

Most Republicans suspect the dearth of signing ceremonies is an election-year strategy in the mold of President Harry Truman's method of running against a "do-nothing" Congress. To trumpet legislative successes would run counter to the narrative of a hamstrung president, Senate Republicans say.

"I think that's his strategy," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said, adding that Senate Democratic leaders are helping President Barack Obama by focusing on partisan legislation that they know Republicans won't support.

Coburn called it a "shame" that the White House would take the approach that "'the only way I can win is to make someone else look bad, rather than win on my accomplishments and my leadership.' That is a tragedy."

The White House last held a signing ceremony in early February for a measure sponsored by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who resigned after recovering from being shot in the head at a constituent event last year. The law gives authorities greater powers to crack down on smugglers using low-flying, single-seater aircraft to slip drugs across the U.S. borders from Mexico and Canada.

But before that, the most recent event was held Nov. 21, on a law that repealed a statute that would have required federal, state and local governments to withhold 3 percent of contract payments for goods and services worth more than $10,000 starting in 2013. The bill also provided incentives for employers to hire veterans, an element of Obama's job-creation proposal.

Republicans contend the most egregious example of a ceremony omission was when Obama signed the deal to extend the payroll tax cut Feb. 22 with no fanfare. The deal was a long time coming, and Republicans argue it was a great example of bipartisan achievement that should have been noted with a signing ceremony.

"The president is working to create an economy built to last, and if there are opportunities to sign legislation into law with Members of Congress at his side, he will work to make them happen," White House spokeswoman Jamie Smith said. "The president, however, will not wait for a formal ceremony if it means that hardworking Americans see their taxes go up on their paychecks or their jobs put in jeopardy. The president looks forward to Congress sending him more legislation he can sign this year that gives everyone a fair shake, a fair shot and ensures everyone plays by the same set of rules."

The White House did make a big deal of the payroll tax cut, but it did so the day before it arrived on the president's desk. On Feb. 21, the president spoke about the agreement that had been reached, though Press Secretary Jay Carney said "it wasn't a celebration; it was an exhortation" to Congress to move more quickly.

The event "was meant to say, 'That's not enough, let's do more' and to note, as the president did, that we do not accept the conventional wisdom oft expressed by the various outlets represented here that Congress can't do anything this year because it's an election year," Carney added.

Senate Democrats argue that, while it was important to pass that legislation, the final bill was a patch rather than a permanent fix and raises the question as to why more has not been done to help the economy and create jobs.

"I think what the American people expect is that we have to do more with unemployment at this level," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who pointed out that it was Republicans, particularly in the House, who spent months opposing the legislation before finally agreeing to support a short-term extension to avoid having the tax cut expire at the end of the year. "I think there will be a debate during the campaign about what has been accomplished."

The White House did hold events last year for other legislative victories, including for patent-reform legislation and trade agreements that were enacted.

But Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said the president is missing an opportunity to show that government can work by not holding more regular events when legislation becomes law.

"I actually think it would help the president to show that he can work with Congress," Alexander said. "I used to be a governor, which is a much smaller job, but whenever I could I used to have joint appearances with the Democratic leaders of the Legislature and I gave them a lot of credit for what happened. And people apparently liked it because I was re-elected. I am a little surprised at what appears to be a deliberate effort to keep quiet legislative accomplishments."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he isn't surprised if the president is indeed trying to back away from Congress given the state of the economy.

"It's hard to do a victory lap about how good I am as a president when the economy and gas prices are the way they are. They are probably smart," Graham said. "I think it would probably be ill-advised to pound their chest about any individual legislative accomplishment until the general economy improves."

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