Obama heads to Capitol Hill, where everything is uphill now


McClatchy Newspapers

President Barack Obama will try to jump-start budget talks Tuesday as he kicks off a series of extraordinary meetings with congressional lawmakers with a huge obstacle to overcome: Personal relationships in Washington don’t matter as they once did.

Obama’s trips to the Capitol come at a crucial time. Funding for most government agencies will run out March 27. Congressional committees will begin writing budgets Wednesday for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Just ahead is May 19, when the government is expected to need more authority to borrow.

In the past, presidential summits with Congress were important catalysts. In 1997, for instance, President Bill Clinton and Republican leaders Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott cobbled together a budget deal that would help control spending for years.

Such times now seem not only distant, but also tough to re-create, because the days when members of Congress were genuine friends who’d share houses, meals, cocktails and carpools – let alone get to know the president – are gone.

Lawmakers want to spend more time with their families or they’re mired in nonstop campaigning. As a result, the relationships and the trust often aren’t there.

Instead, veteran Washington budget analyst Stan Collender said, “Members of Congress probably talk more to their staffs today than to their colleagues.”

Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and others have engaged in talks that led to deals to raise the debt ceiling, reduce anticipated spending and raise taxes on the wealthy. But the negotiations were tense and often resulted in only temporary fixes.

This time, Obama has been wooing the rank and file, first with a series of private meetings and a dinner last week. He plans to meet with Senate Democrats on Tuesday, House of Representatives Republicans on Wednesday, and Senate Republicans and, later, House Democrats on Thursday.

He has some powerful forces to overcome, notably:

1. Taking a middle road leads nowhere.

Early in a congressional session – which is now – was historically when lawmakers could take the big risks, figuring either that their actions would be forgotten or time would prove them right.

Today, interest groups are watching every move. The conservative Club for Growth recently released a list of “liberal Republicans” it will oppose in primaries.

In the Senate, Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky already has been battered by both sides. A conservative group labels him an Obama ally, while gun control interests are on the air charging that he “opposes common-sense reforms.”

2. Lawmakers don’t see compelling reasons to make tough decisions.

When the Great Recession hit in 2007, the blame went to the financial industry and the housing market, not the nation’s fiscal mess.

While there’s a fresh series of calamitous predictions about the eventual impact of the nation’s $16.5 trillion debt, many politicians don’t see much political harm in lurching from crisis to crisis. Voters didn’t punish incumbents much last year, a Pew poll last month found that 59 percent thought the recent automatic spending cuts would have no effect or only a minor effect on their personal finances, and the economy is growing.

3. A lot of Republicans don’t trust the White House.

Granted, some were swept into office as rock-solid conservatives determined to pare the size of government and instinctively opposed to anything Obama likes, but another bloc, the kind whom presidents come to know well, are what Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, calls “governing Republicans.”

Those Republicans helped Obama win big recent fiscal votes. In January, 85 House Republicans voted for the deal to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff and raise taxes on the wealthy, while 151 voted no.

Tiberi had committed to voting for the deal, even though it meant higher taxes. Then he saw Obama go on national television, surrounded by supporters, insisting that “revenues have to be part of the equation in turning off the sequester” in a few months.

“He lost a lot of credibility with the Republican governing class,” Tiberi said.

4. People don’t know each other anymore.

Lawmakers used to stay in Washington for weeks and months at a time. Today, the congressional workweek is usually 72 hours and most lawmakers go home on the weekends.

That means people often know each other largely by name, title – and reputation. It means that even in something simple, such as a quick CNN interview, they fight. One day last month, Reps. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., and Trey Radel, R-Fla., stood together to discuss the budget.

Radel, a freshman and tea party favorite, lauded the automatic spending cuts but acknowledged that there were “certain areas where the government can plan a role in terms of including helping the Sandy victims,” a reference to the October hurricane that damaged parts of the Northeast.

Pascrell was livid. “Let’s be honest. . . . You voted against that,” he said, accurately. “You’ve got a heck of a nerve to even suggest to (the anchor) we need to help the Sandy victims when you voted against that.”

Radel said he did vote no, but Pascrell continued to scold him. “This is one country, one nation, and we should concern ourselves with the common good,” Pascrell said. Hours later, he was still railing about the exchange as he spoke to reporters in the House speaker’s lobby.

Email: dlightman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lightmandavid

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