President Barack Obama came to Capitol Hill Wednesday to give Democrats a pre-summer recess pep talk – with little mention of compromise.
But when lawmakers return Sept. 9, they’ll instantly confront tense, even bitter struggles over the federal budget, immigration and other gridlocked issues.
Obama did not meet at the Capitol with Republican caucuses. Republicans control the House of Representatives and have enough votes to stop action in the Senate.
Instead, he spent his morning urging Democrats to use Congress’ five-week break, which begins Friday, to vigorously defend the 2010 health care law, fight for a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration system and resist efforts to shut down the government because of a budget impasse.
“Jobs. Middle class. Growth,” Obama said after emerging from a meeting with Democratic senators.
Republicans scoffed at the effort, maintaining Obama was desperately trying to sell economic and immigration plans that Americans aren’t buying.
“If I had poll numbers as low as his, I’d probably be out doing the same thing if I were him,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
A July 15-18 McClatchy-Marist poll showed 41 percent of Americans said they approved of how Obama was doing his job, his lowest level in nearly two years.
White House spokesman Jay Carney defended the decision not to meet with Republicans, saying that Obama has been talking with Republicans on fiscal issues, immigration and reducing gun violence.
Obama last met with the GOP caucuses in March, but he has been engaged in talks behind the scenes with a handful of Republican senators in recent months. White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough met with some Republican senators Wednesday.
“The president . . . has been meeting with and talking with and trying to persuade in an effort to find common ground numerous Republican lawmakers, and that effort continues daily and weekly, both at his level and at the senior level here at the White House,” Carney said.
After several failed attempts to strike fiscal deals in Obama’s first term, Boehner told Republicans in January that he did not want to negotiate with the president privately. The speaker said he’s reluctant partly because rank-and-file members and the public are cut out of the process, and it takes pressure off Senate Democrats.
“(Obama) has spent hours and hours and hours meeting with Speaker Boehner over the years, meeting with Republicans and Democrats, trying to get a big fiscal deal,” Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser to the president, told reporters Wednesday. “If Republicans were willing to get something done, he’d do it tomorrow.”
Most of the talk Wednesday at the Obama sessions involved matters where most party members agree, though reports said at least one exchange was tense. When Congress returns from its summer recess, lawmakers will immediately tackle the task of writing a federal budget for fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1.
Soon afterward, the government is expected to need more authority to increase the debt limit. Failure to do either could lead to most of the federal government shutting down.
Obama has embarked on a series of speeches across the nation to tout his plans to create jobs and boost the middle class by reforming the business tax code, investing in things like roads and bridges, and making education affordable. He will take that campaign to Phoenix Tuesday.
Carney said that while some Republican reaction has been predictably critical, others have expressed support. When he was pressed for specific lawmakers, he declined to name any.
“We believe that there is support for this,” he said. “Whether that means Congress will act, we’ll have to see.”
So far, there have been no serious bipartisan talks aimed at resolving Republican-Democratic differences, but Obama made it clear Wednesday he will not negotiate on the debt limit.
“While he was prepared to work with our Republican colleagues, he was not prepared to put at risk the creditworthiness of the United States of America,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. “I think all of our caucus on that clapped and indicated their support of his resolve.”
Republicans weren’t impressed.
“It’s almost like he’s got a ‘Gone campaignin’’ sign hanging outside the Oval Office,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky just before Obama arrived. “And, on the rarest of occasions when he does come to the Hill . . . you find out it’s basically just for another internal campaign rally with Democrats.”
Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.
By David Lightman and Anita Kumar
McClatchy Washington Bureau