WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's request for billions of dollars to deal with migrant children streaming across the border set off Democrats and Republicans. Lawmakers in both parties complained that the White House – six years in – still doesn't get it when it comes to working with Congress.
Top GOP leaders got no notice of the $3.7 billion emergency request. The administration sent contradictory messages about what it wanted to deal with the border crisis. And as the proposal drew fierce criticism, the White House made few overtures to lawmakers in either party to rally support.
House and Senate lawmakers in both parties plus several senior congressional aides said this past week that the handling of the proposal by Obama and the White House is emblematic of the administration's rocky relationship with Congress: an ad hoc approach that shuns appeals to opponents and doesn't reward allies.
Combined with a divided Congress – GOP-led House and Democratic-controlled Senate – and election-year maneuvering, neither basic nor crisis-driven legislation is getting done.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., described the lack of communication between the White House and Congress as "stunning." He said he first learned many details of Obama's border request from news reports.
Obama is the "only person in America who can sign something into law and help bring members of his party on board for an outcome on a given piece of legislation that requires bipartisan support," McConnell said in an interview. "So it's a mystery, but that's the way they operate."
Several Democratic lawmakers echoed McConnell but spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the president of their party. They said they were baffled by the White House's tactics in handling the border request. Several Democrats expressed frustration that the president and administration officials weren't more involved in legislative fights.
Obama's hands-off approach was evident in June.
At a private White House meeting Obama held with the top four Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appealed to the president to intervene in pressing McConnell to allow speedier approval of the president's dozens of ambassadorial nominees.
Obama said it was a matter for Reid and McConnell to work out, an answer that left Democrats flabbergasted, according to participants in the meeting. Finally, more than a week later, Obama called McConnell to urge him to break the logjam and get ambassadors confirmed.
McConnell said the conversation – one of the few he has had with Obama in recent months – was limited to ambassadors.
White House officials rejected the criticism, insisting that they have been regularly consulting with lawmakers.
While frustrated with the administration, Democrats also sympathized. They described Obama's untenable position of trying to work with Republicans unwilling to give him any legislative victories, especially the tea party class of 2010. The White House has argued that even if it tried to cut a deal with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio – as it did in 2011 on entitlements, spending and taxes – there was no assurance Boehner could deliver his rambunctious caucus.
"You've got a core group of the House Republican caucus that has run on a platform of 'no compromise' – if the president's for it, they're against it," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
Several Democrats said Obama must contend with GOP animosity, but so did former President Bill Clinton, who was undeterred through two terms.
Obama held a few dinners with Senate Republicans last year, discussing budgets, entitlements and immigration over steak and coconut sorbet. Hopes for keeping a constructive conversation going have faded more than a year after the last dinner and several participants have had little contact with Obama since.
Faced with the arrival of more than 57,000 minors since October, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, Obama proposed $3.7 billion in emergency spending to deal with the influx. Republicans pressed for changes to a 2008 trafficking victims law that would speed deportations of children from Central America.
For days, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson privately told lawmakers he supported such a change, but the White House never pressed congressional Democrats about following through.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., criticized the White House strategy. "I try never to negotiate against myself, that's all I can tell you," he said.
More recently, the administration reached out to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., with a few suggested changes to the 2008 law. It's doubtful the issue will be resolved before Congress recesses for August.
Congressional frustration with the administration is not limited to the White House.
Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly implored the State Department last month to weigh in on a bipartisan resolution calling on Turkey to return confiscated Christian property before a House panel voted on the measure. The Virginia lawmaker complained the resolution included "gratuitous Turkey-bashing" and wanted State Department officials to help persuade lawmakers to support a toned-down version.
None of his House colleagues heard from department's legislative liaisons.
"The State Department was missing in action," Connolly said in an interview. "They have to professionalize their operation."