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On Omnibus, Obama Let Lawmakers Duke It Out

On the Senate side, reporters rushed to Mikulski, shown here on Wednesday with her fellow Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, for updates on the budget and taxes talks. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

White House officials stayed in the background as lawmakers hammered out sweeping spending and tax bills, allowing Democratic leaders to duke it out with their Republicans cohorts.  

House and Senate leadership aides described the White House’s role as minimal, saying President Barack Obama was never seriously engaged in the high-stakes talks. And some of his top aides were kept in the loop by Democratic leaders, but it was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who did the heavy lifting.  

Several sources also described the leaders as the main Democratic negotiators for their party, with one GOP Appropriations Committee aide telling Roll Call that Obama administration officials had “zero involvement with us.”  

“Reid and Pelosi acted a proxies, but it wasn't overt,” the aide said Wednesday, referring to the Obama administration's involvement. There was some talk that Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s office had some communication with the White House late Tuesday.  

Ryan Touts GOP Riders in Spending Bill 

To that end, however, a House Republican leadership aide was blunt, saying in an email that “the White House hasn’t been very involved.” Still, administration officials “were helpful as a liaison with House as Senate Democrats, as needed," the leadership aide added.  

After weeks of ups and downs, the talks produced a package of tax break extenders and a $1.1 trillion government-wide spending measure needed to avert a holiday government shutdown that Republicans and Democrats alike would have had to explain back home. The latter raises defense and domestic spending caps, giving victories to both parties. The White House handed Congress a rare victory by endorsing both.  

“Reid and the White House … talked daily,” said Kristen Orthman, a spokeswoman for the minority leader. Reid was in regular communication with Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, and Katie Fallon, White House legislative affairs director, Orthman noted.  

Reid took to the Senate floor Wednesday to praise that duo, as well as Brian Deese, a senior adviser to Obama, and Marty Paone, his top Senate liaison. The Senate minority leader said those White House officials worked “intensely” with Democratic leaders to “guide” the spending and tax talks to an agreement.  

Ryan and Obama spoke by telephone last Friday, each stating their respective priorities for the spending measure, sources said. McDonough and other White House officials met with members on Capitol Hill several times since the budget deal was reached in October to explain the administration’s priorities and let negotiators know which proposals they could not support — and on which issues they were willing to bend.  

In an example of the kinds of issues hashed out directly among Reid and Republican leaders, Ryan told House Republicans Wednesday that the Senate minority leader gave him a verbal promise that he will not prevent appropriations bills from hitting the chamber floor next year, the speaker confirmed after he huddled with his caucus.  

The White House has described Obama’s role in the talks as minimal, though Press Secretary Josh Earnest said last week there was “some presidential involvement.” But Earnest time and again has been clear that Obama took a low-profile approach, leaving it to a few top lieutenants to play, in his words, “a central role” in helping the deliberations move forward.  

Earnest last week described the talks as “members of Congress negotiating among themselves.” Still, he said Obama was “certainly aware of what’s going on,” noting Obama did chat with some members involved in the talks during a Dec. 6 holiday reception for members 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.”  

On Capitol Hill, negotiations went far beyond casual chatter over drinks and holiday cheer. The talks lasted day and night, and spilled into several weekends. Republican and Democratic leaders left much of the haggling to senior Appropriations Committee leaders and their senior aides, but took over on a list of hot-button issues.  

In a statement early Wednesday morning, Pelosi tipped her hat to Appropriations Committee ranking member Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., and other senior Democratic members of that panel. On the Senate side, reporters rushed to that chamber’s top Appropriations Committee Democrat, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, for updates on the talks all week.  

“The White House mainly provided a supporting role,” a Democratic source with knowledge of the talks told Roll Call. “Appropriations conducted initial negotiations, and then the unresolved issues were negotiated between the leaders.”  

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 and White House officials remained on the sidelines with much at stake.  

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

Republican members and aides signaled their agreement, with the GOP Appropriations aide saying that party’s negotiators felt Obama’s backseat approach allowed negotiations to progress more smoothly than if he had been directly involved.  

Senate Banking Chairman Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., a former senior Appropriations Committee member, said the White House suffers from a trust deficit among members of both parties.  

“They say one thing and do another,” he told Roll Call. “Some threats they are serious about, and some things are just gestures.”  

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report Related: Congress Keeps Ignoring Obama Omnibus Directs Cash to Conventions, Inauguration Security White House Will Sign Off on Spending Bill Winners and Losers in the Omnibus and Tax Bills See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. NEW! Download the Roll Call app for the best coverage of people, politics and personalities of Capitol Hill.