Congress hadn’t even returned from its August recess before a new partisan battle erupted, this time over when President Barack Obama can give a speech.
Obama agreed last night to delay by a day the long-awaited presentation of his jobs agenda to a joint session of Congress, capping a day of bickering over whether he was trying to eclipse a debate by Republicans seeking the nomination to run against him next year. House Speaker John Boehner delivered an unprecedented public rebuff to Obama’s request to speak on Sept. 7 -- the date of the Republican event -- saying there wasn’t enough time to prepare for the president.
The Republican leader countered with an invitation to speak the following night, Sept. 8, when the National Football League season opens with a game featuring the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. Obama accepted after some discussion, and the White House issued a statement saying the president “welcomes the opportunity” while giving no time for the speech.
“It’s a circus that just casts a deeper shadow on their prospects for getting together on substance,” said David Gergen, director of Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and an adviser to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
“We’ve dragged a serious debate about jobs into a crazy debate about scheduling a speech and serious people around the world look at it and say, ‘What the hell are you doing?’” Gergen said in a telephone interview prior to the agreement.
Conflict over the nation’s fiscal policies brought the government to the brink of default before the White House and Republican leaders reached a last-minute deal to raise the national debt ceiling just before Congress’s August recess.
Before the president accepted the delay, there was finger pointing by both sides over what transpired yesterday. A White House official said Boehner’s staff had been consulted ahead of time and raised no objection to the timing of the speech. Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said the speaker had been “simply informed” and hadn’t “signed off on the date.”
The dispute is just the prologue to the bigger fight over who will lead the political debate on the economy going into next year’s election. Obama is proposing measures he says would boost growth and bring down the 9.1 percent unemployment rate. He has confronted Republicans who won control of the House from Democrats in 2010 on a campaign that stressed criticism of Obama’s economic stewardship and the $830 billion stimulus he pushed through Congress in 2009.
Before last night’s agreement, Senator Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, warned he would seek to block Obama’s speech if the president “insists on playing politics” by giving the address on Sept. 7. He said he would oppose a unanimous resolution that would clear the way for the address.
Donald A. Ritchie, the U.S. Senate historian, said he and his staff hadn’t found any other public examples in which a president had requested a joint session date and been turned away.
Ritchie said he isn’t aware of an example of a president publicly requesting a date for a joint session without first checking privately with House and Senate leaders. “The emphasis is on the word public,” he said. “We don’t know what kind of negotiations have gone on” in private.
Members of Congress are scheduled to be in Washington only on two evenings next week following the Sept. 5 Labor Day holiday.
Obama’s initial request to address Congress on Sept. 7 was announced yesterday in a White House Twitter message. It would have coincided with the debate among eight of the candidates running for the party’s presidential nomination. They are scheduled to face off at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a message on Twitter that Obama’s original plan to give the address on the night of the debate was “further proof” that the Obama White House “is all politics all the time.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney dismissed the criticism, saying the scheduling was “coincidental.” Asked at a White House briefing yesterday whether the administration intended to interfere with the Republican debate, Carney said, “No, of course not.”
In his letter to Obama opposing the Sept. 7 timing, Boehner made no mention of the conflict with the Republican debate. He said the House wasn’t scheduled to hold votes until 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 7 and it would require more than three hours to conduct a security sweep of the House chamber before a presidential address.
Moving the address to the next evening would “ensure there will be no parliamentary or logistical impediments that might detract from your remarks,” Boehner wrote. He said he was recommending the change of dates “on behalf of the bipartisan leadership and membership of both the House and Senate.”
House Democratic leaders weren’t consulted by Boehner about requesting a different day, according to an aide to minority leader Nancy Pelosi, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said the upper chamber’s leader “welcomes President Obama to address Congress on Wednesday or any day of the week he wants to.”
Laying Out Plans
In his request to address both chambers of Congress, Obama wrote to Boehner and Reid that, “It is my intention to lay out a series of bipartisan proposals that the Congress can take immediately to continue to rebuild the American economy by 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.”
Obama chose a forum that presidents traditionally reserve for their annual State of the Union addresses and occasions such as national crises as he opens the fall political season with a new economic agenda.
In a campaign email last night to supporters, Obama said he asked for a joint session of Congress to present his plan because “it’s been a long time since Congress was focused on what the American people need them to be focused on. I know that you’re frustrated by that. I am, too.” Americans must hold lawmakers accountable if they don’t take action on job creation, he said.
Besides his annual State of the Union addresses and a speech delivered just after he took office, Obama used the forum of a joint session of Congress once before, in September 2009, when he was prodding lawmakers to act on his proposal to overhaul the U.S. health-care system.
Among the provisions Obama has been considering for his jobs agenda are more infrastructure spending, tax incentives to spur hiring, a reduction in the employer portion of the payroll tax and changes to unemployment insurance to subsidize worker retraining, according to people familiar with discussions.
Obama has spent much of the year pressing Congress to act on a familiar set of plans: renewal of a 2-percentage-point cut in the employee-paid portion of the payroll tax and extended unemployment benefits, which are both scheduled to expire on Dec. 31; establishment of an infrastructure bank to fund public works spending; ratification of free-trade deals; and overhauling patent law. Obama has said those also will remain priorities.
Signs of Weakness
Concern over the economy has increased as growth weakened during the first half of the year to its slowest pace of the recovery and financial markets turned tumultuous amid concern about the European debt crisis.
The signs of weakness led private economists to revise forecasts for the unemployment rate next year. The median forecast for unemployment during next year’s fourth quarter is 8.5 percent, according to 51 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News Aug. 2 through Aug. 10.
Since World War II, no U.S. president has won re-election with a jobless rate above 6 percent, with the exception of Ronald Reagan, who faced 7.2 percent unemployment on Election Day in 1984. The jobless rate under Reagan had come down more than 3 percentage points during the prior two years.
Standard & Poor’s lowered the U.S.’s credit rating to AA+ from AAA on Aug. 5, saying the government is becoming “less stable, less effective and less predictable.” Even so, Treasuries posted the biggest monthly gain since December 2008, as yields on the 10-year note dropped 52 basis points in August to 2.23 percent at 5:19 p.m. yesterday in New York.