Partisan fight leads Obama to move date of speech
A presidential address to a joint session of Congress is usually one of Washington's more dignified and predictable events — but President Barack Obama's request to deliver a Sept. 7 speech quickly devolved into just another partisan pie fight.
Oval Office requests for a prime-time slot in the well of the House — whatever the motivation, topic or tenor of the times — are traditionally approved on a more or less pro forma basis. In fact, the official historian for the House of Representatives told reporters Wednesday that no such request has ever been publicly rejected.
But this is 2012 Washington, where the comforting little courtesies and old-shoe rituals that once kept bickering Democrats and Republicans from immobilizing the republic have been chucked in the constant quest for news-cycle leverage.
First, Obama ambushed the GOP by upstaging the party's presidential debate with a major address. Then Republicans returned fire by trying to push it back to the 8th. Then the name-calling started. Finally, late Wednesday, Obama agreed to change the day — even if it means backtracking and bumping against the NFL's Thursday night opener.
"Both Houses will be back in session after their August recess on Wednesday, September 7th, so that was the date that was requested," Obama press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement after a day of partisan sniping.
"We consulted with the Speaker about that date before the letter was released, but he determined Thursday would work better. The President is focused on the urgent need to create jobs and grow our economy, so he welcomes the opportunity to address a Joint Session of Congress on Thursday, September 8th and challenge our nation's leaders to start focusing 100% of their attention on doing whatever they can to help the American people."
Think the events of the day are petty? Just wait for the fall battle over the deficit and jobs, which will be held in the lengthening political shadow of the 2012 campaign, insiders say.
"The narrative about the jobs speech has now become about when the speech is given, not the substance of the speech," said a senior Democratic congressional aide who thinks the White House delivered a self-inflicted wound.
The latest sparring began early Wednesday, when Obama's staff surprised leaders of both parties by informing them the president wanted to reserve a prime-time slot, 8 p.m. ET next Wednesday, to address the House and Senate on the nation's employment crisis and how he plans to reconcile the need for job creation with the imperative of deficit reduction.
That the White House sprang the speech on short notice to everyone isn't in dispute. The president's letter was leaked to the press shortly after House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was told of the request.
Republicans were incensed. The address would conflict with Rick Perry's debut in the POLITICO/NBC Republican presidential debate — which administration officials insisted was pure coincidence.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus said the scheduling of Obama's speech "cements his reputation as campaigner-in-chief."
Even Democrats were a little miffed, with one top Senate Democratic aide calling the move "pure Obama — keeping us in the dark until the last minute."
Obama, writing to Boehner — the event's official host — said he plans to "lay out a series of bipartisan proposals that the Congress can take immediately to continue to rebuild the American economy."
For a few hours after the letter was made public, an eerie silence prevailed. Then, around 4 p.m., Boehner threw a serious procedural brushback pitch at Obama — urging him to delay his address by a day.
"The House will not be in session until Wednesday, September 7, with votes at 6:30 that evening," Boehner wrote in a three-paragraph retort.
Boehner cited "the significant amount of time — typically more than three hours" needed for security sweeps, and offered Obama the "recommendation that your address be held on the following evening, when we can ensure there will be no parliamentary or logistical impediments that might detract from your remarks."
His conclusion: "I respectfully invite you to address a Joint Session of Congress on Thursday, September 8, 2011 in the House Chamber, at a time that works best for your schedule."
By the afternoon — as word of Boehner's request leaked — Obama's defenders were fuming over what they view as a stunning breach of presidential prerogative. Then there was Boehner's cheek in suggesting Sept. 8: No debates are scheduled for Thursday — just the NFL's opening night matchup, pitting the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers against the New Orleans Saints.
Before Obama backed down Wednesday night, each side accused the other of bad faith, bad taste and bad command of the facts.
Senior White House officials, responding to Boehner's letter under cloak of anonymity, told POLITICO the speaker had essentially signed off on the 8 p.m., Sept. 7 slot before they went public.
"[The] date and time were cleared with the speaker's office this morning, before the letter went out," an Obama aide said.
A Boehner spokesman went on the record to deny the claim. "No one in the Speaker's office — not the Speaker, not any staff — signed off on the date the White House announced today," Boehner press secretary Brendan Buck wrote in an email. "Unfortunately we weren't even asked if that date worked for the House. Shortly before it arrived this morning, we were simply informed that a letter was coming. It's unfortunate the White House ignored decades — if not centuries — of the protocol of working out a mutually agreeable date and time before making any public announcement."
Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y), chairman of the House Democrats' campaign committee, shot back, saying, "Boehner and House Republicans have just given the American people the clearest — and most disgraceful — proof yet that their priority is playing politics."
Carney's statement Wednesday night reasserted the administration's position that White House officials checked with Boehner, minus the earlier theatrics: "We consulted with the Speaker about that date before the letter was released, but he determined Thursday would work better."
An aide to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took issue with a line in Boehner's letter suggesting the decision to request a different day was bipartisan, writing, "The House Democratic leadership was not consulted with respect to Speaker Boehner's letter requesting a new date for the President's address."
Behind the scenes, Hill Democrats were less complimentary to the White House, arguing that a little heads-up to the Hill would have been helpful. Still, one senior House Democratic staffer said: "The logistics excuse by the Speaker's office is laughable. Yes, consultation always occurs, but the President always gets the date he wants."
History seems to bear that out.
Obama's two requests for non-State of the Union joint sessions — 2009 speeches on the financial crisis and health care reform — were approved without much fuss. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton successfully requested a pair of non-State of the Union addresses each.
Obama said his speech will call for "strengthening small businesses, helping Americans get back to work, and putting more money in the paychecks of the middle class and working Americans, while still reducing our deficit and getting our fiscal house in order."
"It is our responsibility to find bipartisan solutions to help grow our economy, and if we are willing to put country before party, I am confident we can do just that," he said.
The GOP presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library will proceed Wednesday as planned, its sponsors said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. "We are thrilled that we now have a terrific opportunity to hear from national leaders of both major parties about the most pressing domestic issues facing the country."
Eight Republican presidential candidates are set to participate in the debate.
Before Wednesday night's resolution, at least one of the candidates, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), said he had not ruled out trying to block the joint session. Republican candidate Ron Paul "is weighing his options," spokesman Jesse Benton told POLITICO.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) also said he would try to block Obama's address. "The President should pick another night. I'm planning to watch the Republican primary debate on the evening of September 7, and the President should watch it too," DeMint said.
The Senate reconvenes Tuesday; the House returns Wednesday.
In explaining his rationale for the speech, Obama said the country "faces unprecedented economic challenges, and millions of hardworking Americans continue to look for jobs."
"As I have traveled across our country this summer and spoken with our fellow Americans, I have heard a consistent message: Washington needs to put aside politics and start making decisions based on what is best for our country and not what is best for each of our parties in order to grow the economy and create jobs," the president said. "We must answer this call."