As House Democrats faced a full-court press from President Barack Obama to vote for his faltering trade package last month, they sounded just like Republicans.
“Why should we believe anything the executive branch sends up here?” asked Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur.
Newspaper headlines the next day, June 13, proclaimed a humiliating House defeat of one of Obama’s top priorities — just as they had done a month earlier after a Senate setback. Analysts eagerly dissected the Democrats’ abandonment of their president, the failure of his legislative affairs team and fresh evidence of the administration’s bumbling on Capitol Hill. But the lame-duck talk proved premature. Within two weeks, with help from Republican leaders and rare bipartisan trust, the trade package (HR 2146, HR 1295) was headed to the president’s desk.
The persuasiveness of Obama and his emissaries on the Hill, as well as their temporary alliance with the GOP, will be tested again in the months to come as they negotiate with Congress to loosen tight spending caps that already have brought veto threats. Meanwhile, Democrats appear eager to forget about the ugly split with their president on trade and revert to their usual robust presidential support.
The initial defeats on the trade votes were clearly the exception to the rule, which is that Obama and his legislative affairs team during the past six years have been amazingly successful at lobbying Democrats to vote his way, although usually inept at getting Republicans to cross party lines, as shown in CQ’s annual vote studies of presidential support.
Obama has more often than not written off Republicans as unpersuadable, but he expected — accurately in most cases — that Democrats would vote his way whenever he asked.
His own negotiators defend that conclusion as understandable. “That constructive middle has shrunk and you can’t blame it on the president,” says Ed Pagano, a former White House Senate liaison who left the administration last year for the lobbying firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld.
Pagano says the legislative affairs team, as a result, views its first job as keeping Democrats in tow. “You’ve got to tend to your base and then reach out to any gettable members on the other side of the aisle,” he says.
If the trade debate is an example, the president’s approach might be changing just in time to deliver some legislative wins for him and his team in his seventh year in office — helped, ironically, by a newly unified Congress under Republican control.
Republicans like Utah’s Orrin G. Hatch, who led the trade debate in the Senate, credit the president’s personal lobbying with the ultimate victory. “I don’t understand why he doesn’t get more engaged, because he’s effective,” Hatch says.
A Low Ebb
When Katie Beirne Fallon took over the legislative affairs shop last year, it was in disarray.
Her predecessor, Miguel Rodriguez, had been pilloried in a Washington Post article as the legislative director little seen on the Hill. The Post quoted an anonymous Republican staffer: “Nobody knows who the hell he is.”
And the relationship between Congress and the administration was at a low ebb, marked by repeated votes to repeal Obama’s 2010 health care law, the government shutdown the previous October and the simultaneous breakdown of the administration’s healthcare.gov website. Rodriguez lasted only a year.
Fallon set out to make things better. A former aide to Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, she had the president’s backing. Obama committed to more social events and phone calls with lawmakers. He invited others to join him for rides on Air Force One, while Fallon made the rounds on Capitol Hill.
“No one’s done it better than Katie in all the years I’ve been here,” Schumer says.
But Republicans say Obama’s team never convinced them the president was really interested in making deals. “Our perception was you could tell legislative affairs, ‘This is an issue,’ or ‘This is coming up,’ but it never made it to the inner circle at the White House,” says Chris Vieson, who was a top aide to Republican Eric Cantor of Virginia, the former House majority leader who resigned last August. “They looked at Congress as a hindrance.”
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, a Republican who recently jousted with the administration over government domestic surveillance, says Obama has ignored him. “I’ve never seen a White House that thought that they could navigate the legislative process without having a robust congressional affairs program that builds relationships,” he says. “They build none.”
If Obama was reaching out more to Republicans last year, it didn’t show in the voting. Despite Fallon’s and Obama’s efforts, the average Republican representative voted with Obama 12 percent of the time on votes where the president made his preference known, matching the record low that the party set the year before. Democrats, by contrast, backed Obama at near-record levels.
Perhaps Obama had it right when he said, at the beginning of 2013, that all the care and feeding in the world wouldn’t break the gridlock. “With respect to this truism about me not socializing enough and patting folks on the back and all that stuff, most people who know me know I’m a pretty friendly guy,” he said. “What’s gone on in terms of some of the paralysis here in Washington or difficulties in negotiations just have to do with some very stark differences in terms of policy.”
Indeed, getting big things done in a divided capital is difficult, making a legislative affairs operation look bad no matter how skilled it is. By contrast, a supermajority can make a White House lobbyist look like a genius. That was what colleagues called Phil Schiliro, Obama’s first legislative affairs director, when he departed in 2011.
Schiliro says Obama never set out to ignore Republicans and in fact reached out to them in myriad ways.
There were bipartisan successes, he notes: A 2009 bill giving the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco products, for instance, and another one protecting debtors from exploitation by credit card companies.
Schiliro argues that Obama’s reputation for ignoring congressional Republicans is a false narrative peddled by the GOP in order to deflect attention from its own internal divisions. The best example of that, he notes, is the intraparty divide on immigration.
During Obama’s first two years, though, his biggest successes — the economic recovery, health care and Dodd-Frank financial laws — were not bipartisan. Those were still major achievements and when Schiliro left, he was hailed as “the fulcrum” who helped convince Congress to turn Obama’s priorities into law.
But what works with a supermajority doesn’t when government is divided.
Who did more to ramp up partisan tensions depends on whom you ask. Republicans point to Cantor’s request, in 2009, for changes to the economic stimulus bill and Obama’s abrupt response: “Elections have consequences.” Democrats point to Cantor’s feverish, and successful, efforts that year to ensure no House Republican supported the stimulus bill, or Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell’s pledge, the following year, to make Obama a one-term president.
When Rob Nabors took over for Schiliro in 2011, he had to contend with a new Republican House majority that, infused with tea party fervor, wasn’t interested in cutting deals with the White House. Nabors, a former chief of staff for the House Appropriations Committee, learned that lesson fast.
Spurred by Obama, he tried to negotiate a grand bargain to keep the deficit in check and overhaul entitlement programs. Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio was a willing participant but he couldn’t convince tea party Republicans in his own conference to go along.
What flowed from there were a series of fiscal crises, first the debt ceiling debate that yielded the budget sequestration and its across-the-board cuts to federal programs. That was followed by the fiscal cliff at the end of 2012, which was averted when Obama and congressional Republicans reached a deal to delay sequestration by two months while making permanent most of George W. Bush’s income tax cuts.
The 2011 budget deal split House Democrats down the middle, making it one of the rare pieces of major legislation enacted in Obama’s time in which the president didn’t have the vast majority of his party with him. But nearly 90 percent of Senate Democrats approved the deal. And on the fiscal cliff agreement, more than nine in 10 House and Senate Democrats voted aye.
That’s not to say Democrats haven’t, at times, felt ill-used by Obama. Many of those who supported the Budget Control Act that imposed sequestration regret it now. And many privately grumbled that Obama gave away too much leverage in the fiscal cliff deal by pairing permanent tax relief with only a temporary reprieve from sequestration.
David Krone, the former chief of staff to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, dished to the Washington Post after the 2014 elections that Obama was to blame for Democrats losing the Senate.
And there were indications amid the trade votes in the House this month that Democrats’ frustrations were not new. When Obama rushed to Capitol Hill to try to persuade Democrats to vote for the bill, Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison tweeted: “Now President Obama wants to talk?”
But Schiliro says that it’s easy to overstate the significance of one tough debate. “A lot of congressional Democrats feel very strongly that the policy is wrong,” he says. Indeed, President Bill Clinton — more renowned than Obama for his ability to work constructively with Congress — failed in 1998 to convince enough Democrats to give him fast track negotiating authority.
Senate Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois agrees with Schiliro’s assessment. The split among Democrats was about the issue, he says, not a failure of Obama or his legislative affairs team: “What I noticed on the trade bill was the president’s personal commitment and personal involvement. He called me three times, we met in his office a fourth time.” Durbin still voted no.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest expressed hope June 25 that the goodwill that developed between Obama and Republicans on the trade vote will continue.
But on the biggest issue facing Congress — government spending levels — Obama has yet to directly engage in negotiations. That troubles Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri. “They’re reaching out more than they used to, but part of that could be that we’re the chairmen of things now instead of not, and part of that is trade,” he says. “I think the goodwill harbored over trade will go away quickly.”
That’s one possibility. But what if Obama secures a deal on reauthorization of the landmark K-12 education law, the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act? Then, perhaps the story will be about how he overcame the gridlock.
Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, who’s leading the “No Child” rewrite in the Senate, sees an opening: “He hasn’t threatened to veto, which I asked him not to do, and we’re continuing to work with him.”
Democrats downplay the differences they’ve had with Obama. Asked how the divide on trade with Obama would affect the relationship going forward, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said trade has been “a longstanding difference within the Democratic Party having nothing to do with the president.”
Ellison, too, indicated he may have gone too far. A day after his swipe on Twitter, he followed with another that sounded like an olive branch: “I respect President Obama. Usually we agree.”
— Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.