Should President Obama even bother negotiating with the House?
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has told his caucus that "he is done with private, one-on-one negotiations with President Obama," reports Russell Berman at The Hill. The break-up follows two torturous rounds of budget negotiations between the two men — the first in 2011 to raise the debt ceiling, and most recently to avert the fiscal cliff — that ended with no grand bargain and plenty of acrimony. According to Berman, Boehner "will return fully to the normal legislative process in 2013 — seeking to pass bills through the House that can be adopted, amended, or reconciled by the Senate."
Boehner's refusal to engage with Obama could be the seen as further evidence that the legislative process has broken down completely. No law can pass unless the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic president reach a compromise.
However, while the blame was spread around during the 2011 debt ceiling debacle — with Republicans and Democrats accusing each other of ideological rigidity, political cowardice, shifting goal posts, etc. — the fiscal cliff deal sealed earlier this week was different. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Vice President Joe Biden hammered out a deal that was passed with overwhelming support from Senate Republicans. The House GOP's conservative wing emerged as the primary obstacle to extending tax cuts for 99 percent of Americans, demanding major spending cuts in exchange for their support. Boehner, realizing that House Republicans were completely isolated, eventually allowed the bill to come to a vote. It only passed because of strong support from Democrats, many of whom were unhappy with the deal, but were prepared to compromise.
As Congress gets ready for another battle over the budget — the debt ceiling will need to be lifted, once again, in a couple of months — the tax deal is being seen as a model for how to get agreements approved by the intransigent House. According to Jonathan Weisman at The New York Times:
A senior Democrat said that game plan would start in the coming weeks, when Mr. Obama addresses his agenda in his State of the Union address and lays out his budget for the 2014 fiscal year, due in early February.
That opening bid should restart talks with Congress on an overarching agreement that would lock in deficit reduction through additional revenue, changes to entitlement programs and more spending cuts, to be worked out by the relevant committees in Congress. But this time, those talks might start in the Senate.
In other words, Boehner's threat to cut off contact with the White House may be entirely irrelevant. If the White House can reach a deal with Senate Republicans, the House will be embarrassed into action once again. The main question is whether McConnell will be willing to take Boehner's place at the negotiating table — after all, getting chummy with the Democratic president is a death knell in the world of Republican politics. There is also the possibility that the wily senator from Kentucky could drive a hard bargain against a president who has proved in recent weeks that he isn't the savviest negotiator. However, talking with McConnell has one major advantage: Unlike the House GOP, the Senate minority leader is not crazy enough to allow the U.S. to default on its debt.