White House tries to stay involved — not too involved — in Congress's fights

The White House is walking a fine line in deciding how much to get involved in year-end Capitol Hill negotiations on taxes and spending. 

After getting burned for being too involved in summer debt talks, then coming under criticism again in the fall for a laissez-faire approach with the supercommittee, the White House appears to be adopting a middle-of-the-road strategy for the latest battle. 

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President Obama is making calls to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other members of Congress to push forward on an extension of the payroll tax holiday, administration officials insist. 

Senior adviser Pete Rouse has also picked up the phone and paid a visit or two to members on Capitol Hill, the officials said. And the White House has deployed other heavy hitters, including Rob Nabors, who heads Obama’s legislative affairs shop, and Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew.

Vice President Biden has likewise “been in contact” with members, a senior administration official said on Tuesday.

But there have been no White House meetings yet this week with congressional leaders on extending the tax break, Obama’s top year-end priority. Such meetings were a staple at the White House during the summer debt talks. 

The White House is playing coy about exactly what Obama is doing to move the tax package across the finish line. 

Senior administration officials won’t say whom Obama is talking to on the telephone or which lawmakers administration officials are focused on during their visits. 

“The goal here is not to create the theater of a meeting that can be covered,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday at a daily briefing that underlined the change from the summer. 

“The goal here is to get to a result that works for the American people,” Carney said. “We’re interested in a result here. And an interest in a result, as a goal, does not — and often, not only does it not require us to spell out every conversation that’s had by the president or other members of his team, but it requires us to limit how much we talk about those conversations, because we’re trying to get something done here.”

If the White House is gun-shy about stepping into the thick of the latest talks, it is not without reason. 

Obama has been criticized by some in his own party for caving under pressure and giving away the store. Keith Olbermann and other liberal pundits have accused him of “selling out.”

“Searing and transcendent capitulation,” Olbermann said on his now-defunct talk show on MSNBC. 

The White House took a different approach in the fall, when the supercommittee set up by the debt deal worked on a deficit-cutting agreement. 

 As Obama increasingly railed against a dysfunctional Congress, in a preview of his reelection strategy, he stayed out of the supercommittee talks, even leaving the country for the final week of its negotiations.

To an extent this strategy served Obama well. Congress took another hit from the failure in public opinion polls. 

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But Obama did not emerge unscathed, as Republicans and some Democrats slammed the president for his lack of involvement. 

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, senior White House officials expressed few regrets in the president’s dealings with Congress, especially when it came to the debt-ceiling negotiations. 

One senior administration official said that had it not been for the president’s persistence on the issue this past summer, Congress would only now be tackling it.

“It’s because the president went there, put it front and center and really stayed with it,” the official said.

This time around, when it comes to dealing with the spending bill, the official said it was “preposterous” to think that Congress could not pass a bill before the end of the year.

“It’s completely doable,” the official said. “It’s crazy.”