Obama Plays Waiting Game as Congress Negotiates Fiscal Deal

With negotiations over the budget and debt ceiling ping-ponging between the House and Senate, President Barack Obama is choosing his words carefully, when he says anything at all.

The president’s only public event yesterday was mingling with furloughed federal workers who volunteer at a local Washington charity rather than huddling with lawmakers. Today, amid a rush of Capitol Hill meetings on ending the partial government shutdown and staving off a default, media access to a White House session between Obama and House Democratic leaders was limited to a few moments for photographs and video -- no statements.

Obama’s decision to mostly remove himself from the public side of the deal-making in Congress marks a shift in how he confronts Republicans trying to thwart his agenda.

“He’s taking a different tack,” said James Thurber, a political science professor at American University in Washington who studies relations between the president and Congress. “His negotiating style this time is to stand back from the fray and have surrogates do it.”

One sign that the administration is intent on keeping Congress as the focus is a meeting that didn’t happen: a scheduled session with the four top congressional leaders that was postponed yesterday after talks between Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky on a fiscal deal showed promise.

Vice President Joe Biden, who negotiated with McConnell late last year to avert spending cuts and tax increases known as the fiscal cliff, also has stayed on the sidelines.

Break Precedent

Obama’s avoidance of public talks with Congress reinforces an administration goal of seeking to break the precedent he set in the 2011 debt limit talks and show he won’t give concessions under the threat of default.

Former top administration officials and Obama advisers have said the president and his aides concluded his high-profile negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner two years ago, which were followed by the first downgrade of U.S. government debt, was a mistake that damaged the president’s ability to further his agenda.

Obama’s aides question whether Boehner, an Ohio Republican, can deliver on any deal struck with the White House this time because of dissent within his party, according to administration officials who asked for anonymity to discuss strategy.

Political Pressure

With recent polls showing the public blames Republicans more than the president for the stalemate, Obama faces little political pressure to make concessions.

Obama said the Republicans now know they went too far after seeing the reaction from voters.

“I’m pretty sure they’re not going to run this play again,” Obama said today in an interview with WABC television in New York, one of three local stations who were granted interviews with the president.

Behind the scenes, the White House has remained an active in the current negotiations. Yesterday, Obama detailed his concerns about Republican efforts to limit the Treasury Department’s flexibility in managing the debt ceiling in a phone call with McConnell. Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors have channeled the administration position through Senate Democratic leaders, making Reid the public face in the talks for party.

Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, dismissed questions today about the president’s engagement and repeated his refusal to negotiate over debt ceiling or funding the government.

Ideological Agenda

“The president has been having conversations with lawmakers,” Carney said. The president won’t “give the tea party its ideological agenda wish list in exchange for Congress opening the government or Congress raising the debt ceiling.”

Without an agreement soon, the federal government will run out of borrowing authority on Oct. 17 and start missing payments sometime between Oct. 22 and Oct. 31, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The Treasury has $120 billion of short-term bonds coming due on Oct. 17, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. An additional $93 billion of bills are due on Oct. 24.

The halting nature of the talks hasn’t so far roiled markets. U.S. stocks declined after a four-day rally on word the Senate talks were on hold. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index dropped 0.7 percent to 1,698.07 at 4 p.m. in New York after jumping 3.3 percent in the previous four sessions. Yields on 10-year Treasury notes added four basis points to 2.72 percent after touching a three-week high.

Clock Running

Playing the waiting game with Congress carries its own risk, according a veteran of the budget shutdowns that partially closed government operations in 1995 and 1996.

“Time is a tricky thing. Running out the clock puts pressure on everybody,” said Patrick Griffin, who worked as a congressional lobbyist for then-President Bill Clinton. “If the other side doesn’t blink, then you drive off the cliff.”

The White House hasn’t ruled out the possibility that the president will address the nation, as the deadline gets closer or if markets plunge.

So far there’s little political incentive for Obama to change tactics. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released yesterday found the portion of the American public who disapprove of the way Congressional Republicans are handling budget negotiations has climbed to 74 percent Oct. 9-13 from 70 percent Oct. 2-6 and 63 percent Sept. 25-29.

Public perceptions of Obama have been both more positive and steady, with disapproval of the president on budget negotiations at 53 percent Oct. 9-13, up from 50 percent two weeks earlier.

“We’ve lost the fight,” Arizona Republican Senator John McCain said in an interview today. “We’ve got to come to an agreement as soon as possible.”

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