The “hoagie summit” failed to yield a peace treaty Wednesday, with no clear path forward for President Barack Obama’s Congressional to-do list or for solving the year-end fiscal policy pileup.
Ostensibly, Obama called Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to the White House to talk about common ground on a few discrete policy objectives related to job creation and the faltering economy. But the conversation was destined to be hijacked by Boehner’s insistence Tuesday on deeper spending cuts in exchange for any new debt limit increases — and it was.
Each party’s “readout” of the meeting revealed the underlying election-focused priorities of each participant: The White House would like to maintain some level of comity and get a few more victories before November. McConnell would like to be Senate Majority Leader next year, and Boehner has to keep his restive Conference in line. And the positions they all staked out were familiar to anyone who has been following the president and Congress for the past year and a half.
Still, all parties reported a cordial lunch at the White House, and everyone agreed the sandwiches from D.C. deli Taylor Gourmet were good.
The president’s top priority at this point is to win re-election, but everyone, regardless of party, is hyper-aware of the herculean task Congress will face at the end of this year, no matter who wins in November. The expiring Bush tax cuts, the need for another debt limit hike and $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts known as the sequester are a triple combo of political — and potentially economic — pain.
Boehner, who revived his “Boehner rule” on Tuesday, clashed with Obama.
Obama told the Speaker he wants a clean debt ceiling increase without offsets, and Boehner vowed that wouldn’t happen while he’s Speaker.
“As long as I’m around here, I’m not going to allow a debt ceiling increase without doing something serious about the debt,” Boehner told the president, according to a Boehner aide.
Boehner also pressed Obama on preventing a year-end tax hike and approving the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. And he urged the president to encourage Attorney General Eric Holder to cooperate with the Congressional investigation into the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ “Fast and Furious” program.
“The Speaker was very pleased with the sandwiches served,” the Boehner aide quipped.
Obama picked up the sandwiches during a trip to Taylor Gourmet to highlight his proposal for a tax cut for small businesses that hire more people.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called the meeting constructive, with the president pushing for his latest list of job-creation initiatives such as the tax cut, as well as items such as the Violence Against Women Act, the transportation bill and legislation on student loans.
“There was a healthy, positive discussion,” Carney said.
But Carney said the president made it clear he was not willing to repeat last year’s debt hostage drama.
“We are not going to re-create the debt ceiling debacle of last August,” Carney said.
Carney said the president made it clear that he was willing to deal with the medium- and longer-term budget issues as soon as Republicans are willing to consider a “balanced approach” — code for higher taxes on the wealthy.
A tussle over tax hikes sank last year’s attempts to reach a “grand bargain” with Republicans, with Boehner pulling out for the second and final time as the White House was seeking to revive the talks and pushing for more revenue.
A spokesman for McConnell focused more on the things Congress has already accomplished. Senate Republicans, in contrast to their House counterparts, need to demonstrate a more temperate approach as well as a willingness to help govern. If they are to win back the chamber, it will be with only the slimmest of majorities, and even that is no sure thing.
“Sen. McConnell noted in the meeting that the Senate passed bipartisan legislation over the past year when poison pills were removed and Republicans were included in the debate,” the statement from McConnell’s office read, citing the JOBS Act, a veterans jobs bill, trade agreements, Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization, the highway bill, the payroll tax holiday extension and patent reform. “He believes that there is time before the election for even more bipartisan accomplishments.”
For Republicans, “poison pills” mean tax increases.
Pelosi told reporters that the president pushed for balance and didn’t say he wouldn’t support cuts. “We know there have to be cuts; there has to be revenue,” she said. “In fact, if you go on the path that the Speaker is suggesting ... we will soon have no government. ... That might be the agenda of the right-wing, ideological, anti-government Members in his caucus.”
Pelosi called Boehner’s line in the sand “irresponsible” and “immature.”
“It’s not honoring the full faith and credit of the United States of America,” she said.
But Pelosi said the hoagie, potato chip and chocolate chip cookie lunch itself was productive, with the Republicans willing to get things done provided they could agree on how to pay for them.
“I’m glad that the Speaker enjoyed the sandwiches,” she said.
Ultimately, however, both sides are looking to the elections to help clarify the issue.
“I think that’s the first on the list,” one Democratic aide said of Obama’s need to keep the White House. “There is a sense among many that the fortunes of Congressional Democrats will rise and fall with the president’s re-election campaign, that first and foremost the president needs to do anything he can to win to help us keep a majority.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.