Obama, Boehner spar on timing of big jobs speech

Posted Aug. 31, 2011, at 8:47 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 31, 2011, at 10:52 p.m.

WASHINGTON — In a raw display of political gamesmanship, President Barack Obama on Wednesday invited himself to address a joint session of Congress about jobs at 8 p.m. EDT next Wednesday, a request that would have put him on national TV at the very moment when Republicans will be staging a debate among the candidates who are vying to replace him.

Hours later, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, rejected the request. He said there wasn’t enough time to prepare the Capitol on the same day that members return from their summer break. He suggested that the president would be welcome the next night instead, at the very hour when the NFL starts its first game of the season with New Orleans at Green Bay.

Late Wednesday evening, after the brouhaha had escalated into a proxy war underscoring the partisan sniping that grips the capital, the White House announced that Obama had agreed to address Congress on Thursday night, Sept. 8, as requested by the Republicans.

The back and forth came over Obama’s plans to roll out a new agenda to create jobs, the issue that’s certain to dominate the 2012 presidential election. The president has said he will use the speech to demand that Congress approve his new agenda. If it does not, he’s said, he will take the issue to the people in the campaign, suggesting that he’s setting the stage for a Harry Truman-like campaign against a “do-nothing” Congress.

The sparring over when to stage the speech carried echoes of the partisan brinksmanship over raising the debt ceiling earlier in the summer, a melee that led to polls that found sharp public disapproval of everyone involved and that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke blamed for weakening the U.S. economy.

In his request Wednesday morning, Obama asked specifically to address a joint session of Congress at 8 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, Sept. 7.

In an open letter to Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., the president said, “It is our responsibility to find bipartisan solutions to help grow our economy, and if we are willing to put country before party, I am confident we can do just that.”

Publicly inviting himself for a specific time and date was unusual, if not unprecedented. By comparison, the White House traditionally works behind the scenes with Congress to set the time and date for the president’s annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.

Boehner’s aides said the White House didn’t notify the House speaker of its request before releasing the letter to the news media.

“No one in the speaker’s office — not the speaker, not any staff — signed off on the date the White House announced today,” spokesman Brendan Buck said.

“Unfortunately, we weren’t even asked if that date worked for the House. Shortly before it arrived this morning, we were simply informed that a letter was coming. It’s unfortunate the White House ignored decades — if not centuries — of the protocol of working out a mutually agreeable date and time before making any public announcement.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney said late Wednesday that was not true.

“We consulted with the speaker about that date before the letter was released,” Carney said in a statement. “But he determined Thursday would work better.”

Earlier, Carney said it was coincidental, not intentional, that the White House asked for the same time as the Republican presidential candidates’ debate. He said the president wanted to speak as soon as possible after Congress returned to Washington. Carney suggested that the debate timing should change.

“Obviously, one debate of many that’s on one channel of many was not enough reason not to have the speech at the time that we decided to have it,” Carney said.

“You can never find a perfect time,” he said. “There are major events that occur on television. … The network could make a decision to alter the timing of the debate by an hour.”

In a response to Obama that Boehner released to the media, the speaker said that the House of Representatives couldn’t possibly be ready for the president by 8 p.m. next Wednesday. He said the House and Senate first must pass a concurrent resolution inviting the president to speak, and the House wouldn’t even be in session until next Wednesday, with votes set for 6:30 p.m. In addition, he said, a security sweep of the House chamber takes three hours.

“As such, on behalf of the bipartisan leadership and membership of both the House and Senate, I respectfully invite you to address a joint session of Congress on Thursday, September 8, 2011, in the House chamber, at a time that works best for your schedule.”

The White House didn’t immediately respond to the invitation to speak on Sept. 8.

David Lightman contributed to this report.

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