Republicans negotiating a stopgap spending measure to avoid another government shutdown say the White House has been AWOL from the talks, igniting another round of debate about President Barack Obama’s role in high-stakes Capitol Hill dealmaking.
Government funding is slated to run out at midnight on Oct. 1. In 2013, another spending fight shuttered the government for 16 days. Then, Obama said he wouldn't give in to what he termed ideological Republican demands or allow the GOP to use the threat of a shutdown to force changes that included scuttling his signature health care overhaul.
A more hands-off posture this time would put some distance between Obama and a gridlocked Congress just weeks before Election Day. Obama could hit the campaign trail and blame any shutdown — or even the threat of one — on congressional Republicans, who control both chambers.
A White House official made it clear that the administration is deferring to congressional leaders and senior members of the Appropriations committees in both chambers to find a way out of yet another spending mess.
“As has been our position in years past, when we've been faced with similar situations, we have maintained that it is up to Democrats and Republicans in Congress to come together and work out a [continuing resolution] to fund our government,” said the official, granted anonymity to be candid.
“While White House staff are in regular touch with Democrats and Republicans on the Hill, and have offered technical assistance as needed, we have been clear that it is up to the members to get this done,” the official told Roll Call.
Lawmakers are stuck on how to deal with a handful of thorny issues in the continuing resolution to fund the government, including reauthoriziation of the Export-Import Bank, whether to stop or greenlight a corporate campaign finance disclosure rule, as well as emergency aid for flood-stricken Louisiana and to address the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
GOP leaders rolled out the legislative text of a continuing resolution Thursday to keep the government running through Dec. 9 that was quickly rejected by Democrats.
“We’re back where we were yesterday," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "We’re in no hurry to go anyplace, OK? We have a lot of time.”
With an agreement already in place to provide additional money to respond to the Zika virus outbreak, Reid declared, “We can pass a ‘clean’ [continuing resolution], we can do it in a matter of an hour or so.”
Senior GOP leaders contend that it's hard to make progress with the White House on the sidelines, weighing in on provisions only after being briefed by Democratic negotiators.
“The most frustrating thing about this White House is they are just so disengaged,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn told reporters this week. “They really are not involved in negotiations.”
The Texas Republican vented again during a brief interview on Tuesday, saying: “They just don’t seem to have any relationship with the legislative branch. They don’t seem to even try — I hear that from Democrats, too.”
A House Appropriations Committee aide said that panel’s members and aides “have had zero contact with the White House on any of this."
“We’ve heard that they have been briefed occasionally by Senate Dems,” the aide added, “but we haven’t seen any evidence of them really weighing in.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan has downplayed his own role in the talks, saying the Senate is doing the deal-making this time around. But a Ryan aide, asked about the speaker’s office contact with the White House, responded, “I’m not aware of any White House involvement.”
The administration's involvement in previous rounds of spending talks has been a double-edged sword. Some of the same GOP lawmakers and aides have harshly criticized White House officials, including the president, for what they see as a lack of understanding about how to negotiate with Congress.
Some of Obama’s allies on Capitol Hill say Republicans are off base in their criticism this time.
“I don’t think there’s any mystery where the White House stands on any of the open items,” said one senior House Democratic aide with knowledge of the talks.
“I’m not sure what role those people expect the White House to be playing,” the Democratic aide said. “It’s the responsibility of the majority to advance a CR and emergency Zika money that can pass the Senate and the House, and that can be signed into law by the president.”
Reid made it clear on Thursday that the White House is making its presence felt, even if officials are staying away from the negotiating table.
Stan Collender, a former staffer for the House and Senate Budget committees, called the scenario a “damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation for the White House.”
“Cornyn will complain no matter what,” Collender said. “My suggestion would be for the White House not to get involved too early so it doesn't have to negotiate multiple times.”