There’s been so much talk about relationships in Washington recently that opening a newspaper can feel a bit like reading Cosmo.
House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama don’t get along, what with the speaker saying the president doesn’t have “the guts” to cut spending. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell isn't planning on calling up Vice President Joe Biden to cut a last-minute deal anytime soon.
And while Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have a fine working relationship—despite Boehner telling Reid recently to do something to himself that is anatomically impossible—neither man thinks the other is much good at running his respective chamber, aides to both men say.
It’s no surprise, then, that nobody expects much to come from Friday’s White House powwow between congressional leaders and Obama on how to avoid the across-the-board spending cuts set to begin taking effect the same day.
Republicans view the meeting as little more than a photo op for the president, arguing that if it were really intended to produce results, it would have been scheduled long ago. “It’s more about [White House photographer] Pete Souza than it is the sequester,” a senior GOP aide said.
So can leaders with dysfunctional relationships create a functional solution to avoid the cuts?
Increasingly, that seems to be the wrong question. The cuts will almost certainly go into effect and Democratic and Republican aides in the House and the Senate expect that Congress will try to address them through the regular legislative process—an approach both Reid and Boehner have endorsed.
In other words, no backroom deals, for now.
“I don’t know that everybody comes back into the room. The only way that something moves forward is that it moves forward through regular order,” said a senior GOP Senate aide, an assessment echoed by a Democratic Senate leadership staffer.
Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., said her spending plan will replace the sequester with a mix of spending cuts and tax increases. But she said it’s “impossible to predict right now” whether sequestration is addressed through the legislative process or by leadership.
But a Democratic Senate leadership aide pointed out that deals are usually cut by congressional leaders on deadline and, with no pressure mounting ahead of Friday’s implementation, there’s no deal-making happening.
Both sides say that running legislation through committees and floor debates means that more members are involved in crafting the solution, which makes it easier to sell. It also often prods GOP House and Democratic Senate committee chairs to work with some coordination.
Though the Boehner-Obama relationship is much discussed, it became largely irrelevant after the fiscal-cliff negotiations, when both men agreed that talking with the other was pointless. In turn, a return to regular legislative order would throw the Reid-Boehner relationship into the spotlight. And it’s no mutual admiration society.
“The speaker and the majority leader still have a good, businesslike working relationship, but institutionally the Senate Democratic leadership is going to have to act on the president’s agenda if the president wants to make progress on that agenda,” a senior House GOP leadership aide said.
A senior Senate Democratic leadership aide put it this way: “Reid respects people who can deliver, and even when he doesn't like somebody, he respects them if they can deliver. He likes Boehner, but doesn’t think he can deliver.”
This article appears in the March 1, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.