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Obama Takes Backseat in Omnibus Talks

Blunt said the president has to be involved in the government-funding debate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Barack Obama has stayed in the background as lawmakers have negotiated a year-end spending measure, allowing senior members to duke it out.  

The White House is describing Obama’s role in the talks as minimal, though Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday there has been “some presidential involvement.” The president has taken a low-profile approach in the recent handful of times lawmakers have faced funding deadlines. But, for the most part, senior White House staffers have communicated the Obama administration’s views on various issues related to the under-construction omnibus spending bill.  

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House Republicans involved in the talks believe Obama’s backseat approach has allowed negotiations to progress more smoothly than if he was involved, a GOP aide said.  

Earnest signaled that White House officials have only weighed in about what Obama would support — or not veto — describing the meat of the talks as “members of Congress negotiating among themselves.”  

The president “is certainly aware of what’s going on,” Earnest said. He noted that Obama did chat with some members involved in the talks during Monday’s congressional holiday party at the White House. Still, he downplayed the substance of those talks, saying, “I wouldn’t put a lot of stock in cocktail party conversations.”  

Stan Collender, executive vice president at Qorvis MSLGROUP and a former staffer for the House and Senate Budget committees, said it is “absolutely” best that Obama remain on the sidelines as lawmakers struggle to avoid another government shutdown.  

“Some Republicans won’t be seen negotiating with Obama,” Collender said Thursday. “Staying in the background is a smart move by the White House because it gives the GOP more room to maneuver.”  

But just because Obama is not standing at center stage doesn’t mean he isn’t in the play.  

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"The idea that the president wouldn’t be involved in the legislative process would be strange,” Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a Republican leadership team member, told CQ Roll Call. “I think they have to be involved at some point.”  

Publicly, the White House has tried to pressure Republicans to drop their insistence that the massive spending bill contain policy provisions that Democrats and the president oppose.  

Earnest on Thursday continued trying to pin blame for the ongoing government funding standoff on Republicans, saying a final omnibus bill would already have been agreed to by both parties without GOP attempts to include some hot-button policy riders.

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