WASHINGTON — In late December, President Barack Obama’s new legislative affairs team sent him more than a dozen recommendations for ways to improve his strained relations with Capitol Hill. The president responded with a few ideas of his own, including a request for more social events with lawmakers at the White House.
It was a surprising suggestion from a president who has done little socializing with lawmakers of either party and has dismissed the notion that sharing a cocktail or a meal with members of Congress is a prescription for easing Washington gridlock.
But within weeks, there Obama was, mingling over martinis and appetizers with Democratic lawmakers at two White House receptions.
For some members of the president’s own party, it was one of the first times they had interacted with him without the weight of a crisis or a crucial vote hanging over them, said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt.
“It was a very good use of the president’s time,” Welch added. “The call that you make at the moment the vote has to be cast is much more effective if a relationship has been established before the vote is needed.”
White House officials say Obama’s cocktail gatherings are part of a broader overhaul of his congressional outreach operation following the dismal start to his second term.
Under the direction of new legislative affairs director and longtime Senate operative Katie Beirne Fallon, Obama’s weekly schedule now includes time for phone calls to lawmakers. Members are getting more invitations to fly on Air Force One and attend Obama’s events around the country. An important post on the legislative affairs team that was vacant for more than two years has been filled by a Capitol Hill veteran who now represents the congressional perspective in White House meetings on health care, climate change and minimum wage.
More than two months into the year, the moves are being cheered by Democrats and winning tepid praise from Republican leaders, who say they’re now in more regular contact with the White House. Among them is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who said Fallon is the first White House legislative director to stop by his office since Obama became president.
Yet it appears unlikely that the White House’s attempt to warm relations with Congress will help Obama advance his legislative agenda. Republicans have little incentive to improve ties with Obama at this point in his second term, particularly given his sagging approval ratings. Both parties are making clear they have little appetite for tackling big bills in an election year.
“We certainly appreciate the outreach, but each day closer to November, it becomes increasingly clear that Senate Democrats have no interest in actually accomplishing anything other than TV ads,” said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The new outreach to lawmakers also did little to prevent the White House from an embarrassing defeat on the Senate floor last week, when bipartisan lawmakers rejected Obama’s candidate to be the government’s chief civil rights attorney. Eight Democrats joined with all 44 Republicans to block Debo Adegbile from advancing toward confirmation.
Obama has made sporadic overtures to lawmakers before, though his outreach often has coincided with a specific policy goal. He held a few dinners with Republican lawmakers last year to test the waters for possible deficit reduction negotiations, but the invitations stopped after it was apparent that there was no appetite for a grand budget bargain. Obama played a round of golf with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in the midst of the 2011 debt ceiling fight, but the pair never made a repeat appearance on the course.
“I like Speaker Boehner personally, and when we went out and played golf we had a great time,” Obama said last year. “But that didn’t get a deal done in 2011.”
White House officials say their goal this time around is to focus on consistency, not immediate results. In an election year, they’re also seeking to rally Democrats around consistent messaging on issues such as the minimum wage, both as a platform to run on in November and to lay the ground work for pursing legislation again afterward.
“Even if Republicans continue to resist any action to grow the economy, Democrats will stay united to make the public case for these priorities that benefit the middle class and lay the groundwork for eventual success,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
Leading the legislative affairs overhaul is Fallon, a former aide to Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. One of Fallon’s first moves was to bring on an “inside deputy,” whose job is to represent the congressional viewpoint in meetings at the White House. The highly valuable but little-known post had sat vacant since 2011 but is now held by Amy Rosenbaum, a 15-year veteran of the House.
The plan Fallon and her team put together for the president in December included several “good housekeeping” items that had faded away or never gotten off the ground, White House officials said. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the internal White House changes by name.
Among the changes was carving out about 45 minutes in the president’s schedule each week for phone calls to a rotating group of three to five Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Obama used to have weekly congressional call time on his schedule, officials said, but it was dropped in 2012 as his re-election campaign picked up.
Obama also asked his team to start inviting more lawmakers to fly with him on Air Force One and attend his events around the country. After Congress passed a stalled farm bill, the White House decided to hold the signing ceremony in February in Michigan, the home state of Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow, who heads the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.
“It was very meaningful to me,” said Stabenow, who said she had pushed for the bill signing to come in her state. “I worked on this for almost three years.”
Eager to promote a rare bipartisan bill, the White House invited more than 60 lawmakers from both parties to join Obama in Michigan for the bill signing. But in a sign of what the White House faces as it tries to change its relationship with Congress, not one Republican accepted the invitation.