President Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had a lot of catching-up to do on Tuesday.
The two men met in the Oval Office for their first one-on-one confab in 14 months, a gap reflective of the partisan divide in Washington and the strained relationship between a Democratic president and a Republican Speaker who once thought they could make history together.
But Republican leaders briefed by the Speaker later in the day said he reported back without a specific plan of action, suggesting there was little hope for an election year flurry of deal-making.
“I think it was a goodwill meeting,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), chairman of the House Rules Committee, who added that Obama could use some feedback from Capitol Hill after what many considered a wasted year of his presidency in 2013.
“The president’s demise is obvious to everybody,” Sessions said, “and the president’s going to have to have some help or his legacy is in serious jeopardy of being about as successful as Jimmy Carter.”
Boehner was a regular presence in the White House in 2011 and 2012, as he and Obama tried in vain to strike a major agreement on deficit reduction that could put the nation on more solid fiscal footing and bolster both of their legacies.
But after the House reluctantly swallowed a Senate-passed fiscal-cliff deal after Obama’s reelection, Boehner told his members he had sworn off one-on-one negotiations with the president. Obama brushed off Republicans in his own way, refusing to bargain over legislation to raise the debt ceiling after 2011.
If there is one clear point of agreement between the White House and the Speaker, it is that the Obama-Boehner relationship is not the cause of Capitol dysfunction.
“I think it’s a press misconception that the success or failure of legislation in Congress depends on the relationship between a president and a Speaker or a president and a leader in Congress,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday.
“The president’s relationship with the Speaker, as the Speaker has said and the president has said is — has always been solid. And the problem we’ve had in the past here in Washington has been often the dictation that has been provided by a segment of the House Republican Congress over what the House of Representatives would or would not do.”
Carney noted that while the two men have not met together frequently, they have spoken many times on the phone over the last year.
Boehner frequently insists that he gets along personally with Obama, a point his spokesman, Michael Steel, reiterated after the meeting.
“As the Speaker has said many times, his personal relationship with the president is fine,” Steel said. “They simply disagree sharply over public policy and the future of our country.”
Yet it is clear the scars of the failed negotiations in 2011 and 2012 have not fully healed, said former Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio), a longtime friend of the Speaker’s.
“I know for a fact both of them feel the other guy welched on the deal,” LaTourette said.
That experience “diminished the level of trust between the two men,” he said. “When you have the diminished level of trust, it is difficult to come together on some things.”
On the surface, some of the issues Obama and Boehner discussed on Tuesday appear ripe for bipartisan talks. The Speaker, for example, enthusiastically supports Obama’s call for Congress to pass legislation granting him trade promotion authority. But Democratic leaders oppose the policy, likely rendering it dead for the year.
On immigration, both Boehner and Obama support an overhaul. But House Republicans pushed back on the Speaker’s efforts to advance the issue last month, leading Boehner to say it would be difficult for the House to pass legislation until Obama restored trust with his members.
It wasn’t clear whether Boehner and Obama made any headway on the other issues they discussed, but after an hour together in the Oval Office, perhaps it was a start.