Senate Democrats slammed a letter sent by Senate Republicans to Iranian leaders, accusing them of undermining nuclear talks that could prevent the need for future military conflict. (March 10)
WASHINGTON — Relations between President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans have hit a new low.
There has been little direct communication between Obama and the GOP leadership on Capitol Hill since Republicans took full control of Congress in January. Obama has threatened to veto more than a dozen Republican-backed bills. And House Speaker John Boehner infuriated the White House by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress without consulting the administration first.
But the dispute over Obama's high-stakes nuclear negotiations with Iran has put the relationship perhaps beyond repair.
The president and his advisers are seething over Republican efforts to undermine the sensitive discussions with Iran, most recently by sending an "open letter" to the country's leaders warning that any nuclear deal could expire the day Obama walks out of the Oval Office. "I cannot recall another instance in which senators wrote directly to advise another country — much less a longtime foreign adversary — that the president does not have the constitutional authority to reach a meaningful understanding with them," Vice President Joe Biden, who spent nearly four decades in the Senate, said in an unusually harsh statement.
For their part, Republican lawmakers call their outreach to a hostile nation a reasonable response to an administration they say has spurned Congress and ignored its prerogatives at every turn. It's the starkest sign yet that Republicans see an adversary, not a potential partner, in Obama's White House — even on foreign policy issues where partisan differences have traditionally been somewhat muted.
"The mutual efforts to work together under this administration have just disappeared, so I think there's a sense now that extraordinary things occasionally need to happen to be sure that the president understands how strongly the Congress feels," said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.
The dismal state of the relationship has largely sunk the slim prospects for bipartisan cooperation in Obama's final two years in office, with one exception being work on international trade agreements that the White House and Republicans have long supported. And with Obama firmly eying his legacy, even his own advisers have conceded that a president who took office vowing to bridge partisan divides is virtually powerless to influence his political opponents.
"We don't have the ability to communicate with them," Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's recently departed senior adviser, said in an interview with New York magazine. "They are talking to people who agree with them, they are listening to news outlets that reinforce that point of view, and the president is probably the person with the least ability to break into that because of the partisan bias there."
Not surprisingly, each side blames the other for letting things get so bad.
To hear Republicans tell it, Obama has eroded their trust by going around Congress time and again with executive actions, particularly on health care and immigration, where he took steps as far back as 2012 to extend deportation stays and work permits to hundreds of thousands of younger immigrants in this country illegally.
Instead of easing up on the strategy after Democrats took a beating in the November midterm elections, Obama doubled down with a raft of new immigration directives affecting millions more immigrants.
At the same time, Republicans complain he has made few overtures to work with them since the election. The president and GOP leaders last met face-to-face on Jan. 13 during a meeting at the White House, and Boehner and Obama have not spoken since a phone call later that month. There has been scant contact between the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and a so-called "bourbon summit" that the president and majority leader had lightheartedly talked about arranging is on neither party's calendar.
"They don't want to work with us, they don't want to do anything with us," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "I mean, come on. I can't imagine Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan or George Herbert Walker Bush doing some of the things that they're doing that make all of these things more difficult."
The White House and Democrats blame Republicans, arguing they can't find a way to compromise because of the outsize sway held by the most conservative, tea party-backed elements of the party. Boehner has had repeated difficulties controlling this group of lawmakers, finally passing a bill to fund the Homeland Security Department last week only with Democratic help. Democrats increasingly question whether Republicans treat Obama's administration with the deference due to the presidency. The Iran letter was the most visible example, but some Democrats also chafed when McConnell penned an opinion piece urging states to ignore Obama administration climate rules.
The dynamic of a lame-duck president clashing with Congress on his way out of the door is not a new one. President George W. Bush struggled over Iraq troop levels and pushed unsuccessfully to pass an immigration bill. President Bill Clinton faced impeachment proceedings.
Republicans and White House officials agree they must find some way to get along well enough in coming months to perform the basic functions of government, such as raising the borrowing limit and extending the highway trust fund. Aside from potentially trade, there is little hope of bigger deals on taxes or anything else.
Yet even after a government shutdown and years of intense disputes over spending, health care and immigration, White House officials see Republicans' aggressive efforts to insert themselves in the Iran negotiations as the opening of a new front in the fight between the parties.
"It certainly represents a new area that has previously been protected from such outright partisanship," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "They've clearly moved into new territory."
Associated Press writers Andrew Taylor and Stephen Ohlemacher contributed to this report.