At first glance, President Barack Obama’s new effort to court congressional Republicans over lunches, dinners and private phone calls seems fruitless. Despite criticism by Republicans and even some Democrats that the president is unwilling to schmooze with lawmakers, Obama, over the last five years, has watched the Super Bowl with Republicans, posed for pictures with their children and held numerous White House meetings with them, all to watch as they oppose nearly every policy initiative he has offered.
Here’s the difference: on reaching a long-term deal to reduce the federal budget deficit, the main aim of these sessions, the Republicans are not unified in opposition against President Obama’s goals. Instead, they are divided into two camps. Some Republicans, mainly in the House, are completely opposed to any tax increases as part of any agreement, either for ideological reasons or because they fear facing a primary challenge. Another bloc of members, many in the Senate, are more politically secure and would support a long-term deficit agreement that combines both tax hikes and spending cuts, as Obama has outlined. (Here’s the White House’s deficit reduction plan.)
If Obama can get enough of the latter group aligned with him on a plan, it could pass, even if most Republicans in Congress don’t support the deal. And these sessions, like a Wednesday dinner held a hotel a few blocks from the White House, could help Obama build that coalition.
How? Well, while trying not to acknowledge it publicly, House Speaker John Boehner is shifting his tactics in a way that might help the president. After failing to reach an agreement with Obama on the deficit in 2011 or last year during the fiscal cliff debate, Boehner has said he is no longer negotiating with President Obama one on one, realizing House members were angered Boehner was in closed-door sessions with the president without including them and were not agreeing to the deals Boehner cut with Obama.
But Boehner is aiding Obama in a different way. In 2011 and 2012, the House Speaker had been abiding by what was dubbed the “Hastert Rule,” named after his predecessor, which essentially declared no bill would be taken for a vote on the House floor unless a majority of House Republicans would support it. Such a rule essentially gives the most conservative members of the House a veto over any bill, even if it could pass with a combination of votes by Democrats and Republicans.
But over the last few months, Boehner has dropped this rule. He allowed the fiscal cliff agreement, which included a tax hike, as well as the Violence Against Women Act and a bill providing relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy, all to be voted on and passed even though a majority of Republicans opposed them.
Boehner granted those three exceptions for obvious reasons: he couldn’t afford to be seen as the person blocking two very popular bills (the Violence Against Women Act and the Sandy relief bill) or one (the fiscal cliff) who failure could have created an economic panic.
A deficit reduction bill will likely not have that kind of universal popularity or urgency. But if Obama reaches an agreement on a long-term deficit agreement with Senate Republicans, it would be the kind of bill that would get support from members of both parties, much of the national press and the public. Boehner would be under heavy pressure to allow a vote on such legislation, even if he and many of his members would not vote for it. And it would likely pass the House.
But the first step for Obama is actually crafting an agreement with Senate Republicans. Enter these meetings. Obama, looking to cut about $1.5 trillion in spending over the next 10 years, has already hinted he would support limiting Medicare benefits for retired people with high incomes and gradually reducing Social Security benefits, two ideas Republicans like. But the meetings will help him reinforce those views with key Republicans, such as Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who have long wanted to reach a deficit reduction agreement. Some moderate Republicans have suggested Obama prizes politics over policy, another impression he can fix with these meetings. And Obama aides told the Washington Post the meetings have another intention: Some Republicans simply aren’t aware of what Obama has proposed in terms of budget cuts, and the meetings give him a chance to directly present that information.
And the charm offensive has no real downside. Obama aides have in the past mocked journalists who argue more personal meetings with Republicans make a difference, correctly noting that the GOP has both ideological and political incentives to oppose Obama. Most Republicans aren’t going to change long-held positions based on one meeting with Obama.
But this is not an issue, like climate change, in which all Republicans are dead set against everything Obama and Democrats stand for. There is room for negotiation here, and Obama appears ready to explore it.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @PerryBaconJr.