Washington Partisans Pick Up Right Where They Left Off

Aug 31, 2011

Job creation may be the biggest issue facing the nation this fall, but it's not what set off the latest test of wills between the White House and Republican leaders of Congress today.

The president's promised speech on job creation could be a pivotal event in itself, but it's not what caused the latest outbreak of stunning childishness in Washington.

No, the spark that got all the Twitter and talk-show flame-throwers back into action was the timing of the president's speech on jobs. That's right, the question of when the president would go to Congress with his ideas for getting more people back to work.

It began when the White House announced it was asking for a joint session of Congress at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 7.

That is precisely the hour when MSNBC expects to carry a debate among eight candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. It will be the first debate to include that field's new front-runner, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

The White House called that a coincidence. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called it "a pure political play."

It might have been one or the other or even both. The first day next week when both House and Senate are back at work is Wednesday. The next night, Thursday, is far less appealing because it is the night the NFL kicks off its new season. Friday night? No president who wants an audience ever asks for a joint session on a Friday night, much less a weekend.

So if the president was going to talk to Congress in its first week back on the job, well, it looked like Wednesday night would be the night. That is, if the speech was going to get on TV and have an audience. If MSNBC wanted to schedule the debate an hour later, the Republican hopefuls could enjoy a two-hour rebuttal to the president's speech.

But none of that was washing with Republicans who saw the White House thrust as an evident attempt to undercut their candidates. Their restive reaction soon led to a brief letter from Speaker John Boehner telling the president Wednesday night would not work for the House.

First off, Boehner said, House members were not expecting any votes until 6:30 p.m. on their first day back, so that would be the earliest the chamber could formally endorse an invitation to the president to speak. That would not leave enough time for a security sweep of the Capitol, according to the speaker.

Boehner then suggested the president go for a match-up against the NFL on Thursday night. And he made that an invitation of the "bipartisan leadership" of Congress, even though the offices of the House and Senate Democratic leaders immediately said they had not been consulted.

What followed was the usual finger-pointing festival, all-too-familiar from the debt ceiling wars of five weeks ago. The White House said it had checked the timing with Boehner and gotten an OK. The speaker's office denied it.

For those who have been watching the summer unfold in the capital, it seemed all too plausible that everyone's version of this comical Rashomon had at least some truth in it — and a great deal of defensive self-interest.

But we have also seen before that Boehner negotiates deals he cannot get the House majority to accept. In the past, some speakers have run the House majority. More often in recent years, the House majority runs the speaker.

And, just as sadly, we have seen the White House groping toward a grasp on the new majority culture in the House. The president's inner circle, apparently caught off guard by the debt ceiling crisis, still seems shocked at the eagerness with which House Republicans seized that moment and reordered the fiscal world in a matter of weeks.

We also know that the general public reaction to this summer has been negative to the point of utter disgust. The president's approval rate is at its lowest to date (around 40 percent) and Congress' numbers are less than half that good. The breakdown of the nation's political apparatus was cited as a major reason for the downgrade of U.S. creditworthiness by the S&P debt rating agency.

Didn't the denizens of Washington get the message from this angst-ridden August? It depends on which message you mean.

They did not hear the voices calling for reason, civility, bipartisanship or whatever one wishes to call traditional compromise and consensus.

More likely, they listened to those in their respective power bases who told them to fight harder and never give an inch. Judging by the last day of this wretched month, that is the message from home that the warring tribes of Washington have taken to heart.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit