Obama To Host White House Meeting With Congressional Leaders

Jan 13, 2015
Originally published on January 13, 2015 8:01 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Last time congressional leaders visited the White House, it was just after President Obama's party was trounced in a midterm election. The lawmakers left with a gift - a six-pack of White House Honey Ale beer. No word on whether there will be swag-bags later today when Republican and Democratic leaders head to the White House to meet the president. This will be the first such face-to-face meeting since Republicans formally took over the Senate. As NPR's Tamara Keith reports, few are holding their breath for some big announcement.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Back in 2010, in his State of the Union Address, President Obama set out a goal. But maybe it was more like one of those New Year's resolutions to go to the gym regularly.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I'd like to begin monthly meetings with both Democratic and Republican leadership. I know you can't wait.

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KEITH: It turns out, maybe they could. According to CBS White House correspondent Mark Knoller, who is the unofficial stat keeper for all things presidential, Obama has held 24 meetings at the White House with congressional leaders since making that pledge five years ago. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest admitted yesterday the president came up short of the goal. He also declined to set up any similar, quote, "artificial standard" going forward.

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JOSH EARNEST: But I do think that you can expect the president to be in regular touch with leaders on Capitol Hill, both Democrats and Republicans.

KEITH: This White House has been criticized repeatedly for its poor relationships with lawmakers - not enough golf with the speaker, not enough whiskey with the Senate majority leader. Today's meeting probably won't go in the column of personal relationship building. Earnest says the president plans to talk about possible areas of agreement - tax reform, trade and infrastructure.

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EARNEST: This will be an opportunity for them to talk about a range of issues, most importantly the legislative agenda for 2015.

KEITH: Cory Fritz, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, says the speaker will tell the president the American people want them to work together to get the economy moving. But he added recent veto threats from the White House show the president isn't listening. So, yeah, going in, there's not even a whole lot of agreement about what they could possibly agree on.

CORY FRITZ: If everybody coming to the meeting has a different idea in their mind of what they want to accomplish, it's hard to have a successful meeting at the end.

KEITH: Bob Frisch is managing partner of the Strategic Offsites Group in Boston. He's what you might call a professional meeting designer. And he's not convinced today's meeting with congressional leaders is designed for success.

BOB FRISCH: I'm an expert in meetings. I'm not a political analyst. But it's hard for me to sit down and say, OK, I have a good sense of what the president is trying to accomplish, other than build a good relationship or some kind of 30,000-foot placeholder like that.

KEITH: In this case, the meeting will be large - at least 18 people, not counting staff or other aides - the president, the vice president, plus four Democrats and four Republicans from each chamber. Frisch says that is a good-sized meeting for brainstorming, throwing a bunch of ideas around.

FRISCH: But if you're going to have a meeting saying, let's nail down the three most important things to work on and let's get down to a set of real options that we can possibly all support, boy, I think that's going to be very, very hard to do with 17 people in the room.

KEITH: All of that said, a White House official argues there's value in getting all of those people in the same room. Just because a meeting doesn't end with a list of action items doesn't mean it's not worthwhile. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.