Sources describe President Barack Obama and his top aides as laying down their cards and then walking away from the table before congressional leaders really began seriously negotiating a stopgap spending measure.
Talks on Capitol Hill took a key turn Tuesday afternoon after Senate Democrats blocked a Republican-crafted measure that included Louisiana flood relief but not funding for the troubled Flint, Michigan, water system.
As negotiations continued Tuesday, the top leaders from each chamber stayed in contact. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada also spoke with the White House multiple times in the final 24 hours, according to a senior Democratic aide.
Multiple sources described the president and his team as plugged into the final stages of the negotiations via the Senate, and in the latest moments, House Democrats. White House aides acknowledged this, after saying for weeks that it was up to lawmakers to finalize a deal given that Obama’s stances on dicey issues were well known.
Sources with knowledge of the White House’s role said Obama and his staff began working closely with key lawmakers in August about the shape of what would become a 10-week continuing resolution — especially with Democratic leaders. That goes double for Reid, whom sources describe as the White House’s main point of contact. The administration also had extensive talks with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Obama and Reid talked in late August in Nevada about what the president would sign, and more importantly, what he would not accept, sources said.
Over the summer, White House aides had regular conversations with lawmakers as they began discussing a CR in earnest.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn ripped Obama over the last few weeks for, as he described it, being absent from the talks. The Texas Republican contended that without the president — or a top aide — directly involved, the negotiations were clunky and often led nowhere.
But sources said Obama made numerous calls to the leaders of both parties in both chambers to discuss the contours of the stopgap measure.
The White House was eager to declare victory on a number of provisions that made it into the final CR, including the $1.1 billion for federal efforts to fight the Zika virus. Obama worked the phones on that issue in August, with senior aides taking over in September by talking with Democrats on the Hill, sources said.
The sources’ accounts show, as lawmakers and congressional aides said Wednesday, that Obama and the White House were not heavily involved in the swift closing of the deal from midday Tuesday to final passage in the House on Wednesday night.
White House aides seemed satisfied Thursday with making sure that Obama and his team got credit for the things that made it into the deal, but not that a deal actually got done.
“The president has been clear for months that not only does Congress need to do its job and fund our government, but they must do so within the budget framework that was agreed to last year, and without ideological riders,” Jennifer Friedman, the White House deputy press secretary, told Roll Call.