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Jewish World Review
Sept. 2, 2011
3 Elul, 5771
W.H. furious over speech delay
It seemed like a trivial matter: On Wednesday, House Republicans forced the president to delay his speech to a joint session of Congress by one day.
Who cares? The White House cares. Very much.
“It is a big deal that the House said ‘no’ to the president from our end,” a White House source with intimate knowledge of what took place between the House and the president told me Thursday. “This confirms what we all know: They will do anything in the House to muck us up.”
On Wednesday, the White House staff did not know exactly what President Barack Obama was going to say in his major jobs speech, but it knew exactly where and when he was going to say it.
The location would be before a joint session of Congress in the august marble-clad chamber of the House of Representatives. And the speech would be next Wednesday night, when the House returned from vacation, and there would be maximum TV viewership.
The speech would be dignified, sober and important. But the planning turned out to be a mess, a mess that illuminates just how hyper-partisan politics have become on Capitol Hill at exactly the time Obama is calling for bipartisanship.
The White House was well aware the president’s speech would conflict with a planned Republican debate sponsored by POLITICO and NBC to be held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. The debate would be broadcast live by MSNBC and live-streamed by POLITICO. CNBC and Telemundo will re-air the broadcast.
Yet the White House did not see this as an obstacle. “With all due respect, the POLITICO-MSNBC debate was one that was going on a cable station,” the White House source said. “It was not sacrosanct. We knew they would push it back and then there would be a GOP debate totally trashing the president. So it wasn’t all an upside for us.”
And, at first, things seemed to fall into place.
At about 10 or 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, White House chief of staff Bill Daley called House Speaker John Boehner and asked that a joint session of Congress be assembled the following Wednesday night. The White House viewed Boehner as a political opponent, but not an enemy and the call was cordial, even pro forma considering such a request had never before been refused.
And, according to the White House source, Boehner said “okay” to Daley’s request for the Wednesday evening date. (Asked for comment, Boehner’s press secretary, Brendan Buck, said he had nothing to add to his statement of Wednesday that read in part: “No one in the speaker’s office - not the speaker, not any staff - signed off on the date the White House announced today.”)
Then things quickly unraveled. It turned out not everyone was as sanguine as Boehner with the notion that a Democratic president was going to step on a Republican debate.
At 11:55 a.m. Wednesday, the White House tweeted the news about the joint session. “And then Rush Limbaugh beat Boehner up,” the source said.
The conservative talk show personality was in his familiar state of high dudgeon. “This is a pure campaign speech and to give it the imprimatur of a speech before a joint session of Congress, there’s no way, he doesn’t deserve that,” Limbaugh said. “Boehner’s got to say no. Now, whether he will, I have no clue.”
A number of Republicans in the House and a few in the Senate did have a clue and they told Boehner that while they would allow the joint session – it was hard not to for both historic and political reasons – the timing had to be on their terms, which meant it could not conflict with the Republican debate.
At which point Boehner’s office announced that Boehner had never agreed to the Wednesday date, that Congress did not get back into session until 6:30 p.m. on that day, that various votes had to be taken, that security had to be arranged and Obama should push his speech back a day to Thursday.
Which just happened to be the evening the Green Bay Packers were meeting the New Orleans Saints in the NFL season opener. Which meant Obama would have to move his speech up an hour or so before the kick-off at 8:30 p.m.
The White House was not pleased. In reality, it believed, Congress really had never gone out of session, a parliamentary move that blocked Obama from making recess appointments. “And they had to arrange security?” the White House source scoffed. “As if they couldn’t do that! This was a political thing, a tea party thing, a Rush Limbaugh thing. They were all giving Boehner gas.”
The White House did not want to give in and look weak, but what was the alternative?
An Oval office speech instead?
“You can’t speak for 40 minutes from the Oval Office,” the source said.
How about the East Room?
“He’s going to speak to an empty East Room with just the Teleprompters and staff there? No,” said the source
So it had to be in the House of Representatives, which the Republicans control. “But we couldn’t go if they didn’t let us come,” the source said. “You can’t hold the speech in the lobby or in the parking lot. And you’re not going to get network coverage if you hold it at George Mason University.
“After a month of world chaos, the setting had to match the topic. And you don’t get any better setting than a joint session of Congress.”
In the end, the White House felt it had no choice but to give in on the date, and Obama sent an email to his supporters with the subject line: “Frustrated.”
“It’s been a long time since Congress was focused on what the American people need them to be focused on,” Obama said in the email. “I know that you’re frustrated by that. I am, too.”
Obama said he was going to put forward “a set of bipartisan proposals to help grow the economy and create jobs” and he was “asking lawmakers to look past short-term politics and take action on that plan.”
It was, perhaps, not the friendliest message, but the White House was not in a friendly mood. Some Democrats were attacking Obama for once again “caving in” to Republicans, though others thought that it was an inconsequential matter.
The White House is viewing it as very consequential, however. “It is a big deal,” the source said. “It shows the House Republicans will do no outreach, nothing.”
And who does the White House believe was really behind treating the president so shabbily?
“At first, I didn’t think it was Boehner, but his caucus,” the source said. “But maybe not. Maybe it is him.”
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