Stung by failed attempts to personally negotiate a grand bargain on the national debt earlier this year, President Barack Obama is keeping his distance from the super committee created to break the deadlock on the debt and deficit.
The White House has played close to no role behind the scenes of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction, according to senior House and Senate aides on both sides of the aisle. And that doesn’t appear likely to change, unless Republicans show they are willing to budge on the president’s $447 billion jobs package or on taxing the rich.
“Why would they get seriously involved when the Republicans have offered nothing more than politics, rhetoric?” said one Democratic aide close to the committee.
The committee’s Democrats and the White House share a goal of having a balanced approach to the deficit issue, which would include raising taxes as well as cutting spending, and the administration has been keeping tabs on the panel’s progress, aides close to the committee said.
But Democratic aides from the House and Senate told Roll Call this week that the White House has been largely disengaged since offering its deficit reduction package in September — a proposal that even the White House acknowledged at the time wasn’t crafted to get GOP votes.
Aides said there appeared to be several reasons the White House was taking a hands-off approach and introducing its plans to the public instead of getting embroiled in the daily negotiating on the Hill.
Getting involved could actually hurt the chances for a deal because Republicans, particularly those in the rank and file, are likely to oppose anything with Obama’s name on it. The president, aides noted, tried one-on-one talks with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) earlier this year, and it didn’t turn out well for either leader.
Several aides said the White House believes the super committee is likely to fail to produce a package that shaves at least $1.2 trillion from the deficit. Therefore, it may not be worth their time and could tarnish the president because the GOP would try to pin any failure on him, these aides said.
The White House has come to realize the “Republicans have one target. ... It’s him,” one House aide said.
Even if the panel does get a deal, Obama will want to distance himself from some of the painful choices that are made — arguing that he would have done it differently, even if he ultimately ends up signing the super committee’s package.
“If we get a deal, it’s going to piss people off, and if we don’t get a deal, it’s going to piss people off,” the House aide said.
The White House is getting political mileage from running against a “do-nothing” Congress, and Obama’s leverage could actually increase if the committee fails to act.
Republican leaders sense an opening to attack Obama for campaigning instead of crafting bills they can support.
“While the president is out doing campaign events all over the country, what he could do is to actually come to Washington and be focused on trying to help pass bills that would create a better environment for job creation and help put the American people back to work,” Boehner said Wednesday.
A senior Republican aide called the White House “completely disengaged in one of the most important tasks this Congress will take on. That being the case, they better not complain much about the bill that gets sent to them.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, who was peppered with questions about the president’s hands-off approach Wednesday, minimized the value of holding more meetings with the GOP. “He is engaged,” he insisted. “He put his cards on the table with his [September] proposal.”
Carney noted that Obama had already negotiated the details of a “grand bargain” with Boehner earlier this year, but “in the end, it was not politically possible for the Speaker to do.”
He pushed back against Republican criticism that the president is out on the stump instead of working to pass bills in Congress.
Carney criticized the House’s work schedule as “quite anemic.” He also noted that the super committee has “no seats at the table for members of the administration.”
“We’ll have to see” what they produce, Carney said, but a solution is “just not that complicated” — it needs an approach that includes taxes on the wealthy.
Office of Management and Budget spokeswoman Meg Reilly said that White House staff stands ready to assist the panel. “We will continue to provide any assistance needed to help the committee do its job to craft a plan that makes balanced, tough cuts while supporting economic growth and job creation,” she said.
Some Democratic aides don’t fault the White House — sensing that the campaign approach of bashing the GOP is working.
“He drew a bright line at the beginning by saying he would veto a bill that didn’t include revenues, and he has been out on the stump every week slamming Republicans for their obstruction,” said a Senate leadership aide. “No one’s complaining. To the contrary, people on our side feel like he has our back and we’re all on the same page.”
Though super committee members have been loath to talk about the panel’s inner-workings, many sources, especially on the GOP side, singled out Obama’s joint address to Congress in early September as a sign of both lingering frustration at the White House and the administration’s lack of regard for the panel’s work.
At the time, Obama asked the group to pay for his $447 billion package by finding more savings. Republicans exploded at the idea and Democrats gently bristled at having another task heaped on them.
“It appears President Obama is once again abdicating responsibility in paying for his plans, pushing it off on the deficit reduction committee,” said super committee member Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) on the night of the president’s jobs speech.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, speaks with reporters in the Capitol after a speech on the Senate floor that accused the CIA of searching computers set up for Congressional staff for their research of interrogation programs.