How to solve a problem like the White House relationship with Congress? And why should I be involved -- aren't these people supposedly adults? These are two questions I am asking myself today, because despite the fact that a few months ago, congressional Democrats were loudly signaling, "Stay away from us, Mr. President! Please remain aloof," congressional Democrats are now really super-emotional about the extent to which President Barack Obama has remained aloof, per their previous instructions.
Let's try to explore how to help all of these emotional basket cases to get a grip on things.
A June meeting in the Oval Office between the president and "the four top lawmakers in Congress" to discuss Iraq provides the anecdotal basis for stories by The Associated Press and The New York Times. Per the Times:
With Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, sitting a few feet away, Mr. Reid complained that Senate Republicans were spitefully blocking the confirmation of dozens of Mr. Obama’s nominees to serve as ambassadors. He expected that the president would back him up and urge Mr. McConnell to relent.
Mr. Obama quickly dismissed the matter.
“You and Mitch work it out,” Mr. Obama said coolly, cutting off any discussion.
Reid, apparently upset that Obama did not opt for the Real Housewives Of New Jersey table-flip he was offering, "seethed quietly." And after Reid spent some time with a tiny cartoon storm cloud over his head, his office apparently decided to talk to reporters about it. According to the White House, Obama later made a call to McConnell to talk about the ambassadorial logjam. Personally, I think, "You and Mitch work it out," is a pretty explicit instruction, but maybe I need to check my emotional stability privilege to really understand how Congress works.
Much of what Congress wants doesn't seem, at first blush, to be serious. Its members would like to be invited to more social gatherings, and be more "gregarious." The Times reports that those lawmakers who are invited to such things don't always show up ("Twelve [Democratic Senators] were invited to a St. Patrick’s Day reception this year ... but only one showed up"), so it would appear that Obama has to invite them much harder, on hand-printed stationery, or something.
Also, Obama is not giving members of Congress enough opportunity to bask in glory:
Members of Congress are usually invited to Mr. Obama’s speeches, but they sit in the audience. The result is that Democratic members are robbed of a triumphant picture with the president that they can show their family members, while the White House sacrifices the loyalty of a once grateful lawmaker.
There are those on Capitol Hill who offer a certain refreshingly mature take on this matter, like Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who tells The Hill:
“[With] some of my colleagues, I feel like I'm back in high school, right? It's, 'Oh, he didn't smile at me. He didn't do a photo with me. He didn't invite me to the Super Bowl party,’” Quigley said. “Who cares? What are you, 12? … We've got important stuff to do.”
Quigley should probably mention the existence of "important stuff to do" to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who shows up in The New York Times' piece, clucking like so:
Asked to characterize his relationship with the president, Mr. Manchin, a centrist Democrat who has often been a bridge builder in the Senate, said: “It’s fairly nonexistent. There’s not much of a relationship.”
Manchin probably hasn't come round to the understanding that he cemented a nonexistent relationship with the White House when he turned tail and abandoned his post during the 2010 lame duck session at a time when the White House was working hard to pass the Dream Act and end "Don't Ask Don't Tell." Manchin opted instead to attend a Christmas party. But it was probably an important Christmas party. Maybe Christmas almost didn't even happen. Good thing Joe Manchin was there, in West Virginia, to save Christmas. Why doesn't the White House get that?
But, apparently, not all of this tension is founded on trivial concerns. Both The Associated Press and The Hill contend that this strained relationship flared most seriously in recent weeks, as Congress struggled to solve the crisis of unaccompanied, undocumented immigrant minors on the border. Per The Hill:
More recently, the administration's message on the southern border crisis emerged bearing mixed signals about what new powers Obama was seeking to expedite the deportation of unaccompanied migrant kids. Amid the confusion, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Democrats were prepared to swallow changes to a 2008 human trafficking law in return for the border funding, a position she quickly reversed following an outcry from immigrant rights advocates wary of eroding the legal protections for those kids.
Pelosi has long defended the White House's communications efforts. Still, even the ever-loyal Democratic leader recently urged the administration to bolster its congressional outreach in the face of widespread criticism from allies.
“While I disagree with the characterization [that Obama is too aloof], if that is the impression people have, then communication has to be stepped up,” she said during a July 22 appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe” program.
To be honest with you, I'm not sure that what happened in Congress related to the border crisis deserves to be shoehorned into a narrative about the White House relationship with Capitol Hill Democrats. A better example of a legitimate beef between Congressional Democrats and the Obama administration is the bungled launch of the Affordable Care Act's online apparatus -- which blindsided Democratic members and cost them political capital. But the recent immigration wranglings didn't really hinge on an inadequate number of social occasions. Let's recall what actually happened, shall we?
July 2, 2014: The administration quietly floats the idea that it wants to "change a 2008 law that dictates how the federal government handles those immigrant children in order to speed up their deportations." The change would involve empowering Border Patrol agents to expedite deportations, instead of bringing in the Department of Health and Human Services.
July 28, 2014: The White House says, "Sure, Congressional Democrats, whatever you want, we are behind you." What Congressional Democrats want to do is pass "an emergency spending measure that would provide an additional $2.7 billion in funding for the crisis on the Texas border." The White House still wants to change the 2008 law, but is willing to hold off for the time being.
Meanwhile ...: Republicans take up their position on the matter. Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) have a bill in the Senate that would address the 2008 bill, said Cornyn. House Republicans, meanwhile, made it clear that they'd refuse to support any immigration bill that did not change the 2008 law. The GOP's version wouldn't fund this solution at the level Obama originally sought, but as Cornyn put it, "A solution beats no solution every day." Boehner reckons he can get his caucus behind the bill, which by now is known as the traditional prelude to disappointment. Sure enough ...
July 31, 2014: Boehner pulls the bill after it becomes obvious that his members won't support it. As per usual, the Ted Cruz Rebel Alliance is involved. "With almost no Democratic support, Boehner needed to corral votes virtually entirely from within his own Republican caucus, and he faced a group of House conservatives who worked hand-in-hand with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in plotting their strategy to bring down the legislation in pursuit of a more purely conservative approach." But things get worse from the point of view of the White House, because ...
Aug. 1, 2014: Everyone in the GOP insists on passing something, and the thing they pass is a measure that repeals the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
So that is what happened with that. And guess what we've learned? No amount of schmoozery between the White House and Democratic congresspersons could have altered this dynamic. Obama could have wooed and cajoled, convinced the entire Democratic caucus to back his plan to change the 2008 law, or come together completely to work on their alternative. Steaks could have been had. Golf could have been played. Love could have been made. Really romantic love, with attentive foreplay and post-coital cuddles.
All of that may, indeed, be critically important for the sake of governing. On this widely cited occasion, however, it would not have changed a blessed thing. In the end, House Republicans still would not have done much of anything, unless it included repealing the administration's signature immigration policy achievement -- DACA. Sorry! Maybe next time.
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