WASHINGTON — In the days following President Obama’s announcement that he would seek congressional approval to order a military strike in Syria, Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and a handful of other influential Republican lawmakers dutifully lined up behind the commander-in-chief — even as most of their party vocally objected to the plan.
But since the announcement late last month, the White House has failed to adequately sell the plan to skeptical members of Congress and the public, once again leaving Boehner and Cantor high and dry after they took a risk to support the president.
Both leaders made their unhappiness with the administration’s persuasions skills clear Tuesday, explicitly telling reporters that the White House has failed.
“Clearly, Members tend to reflect their constituents. The American people have not been supportive. He has not made the sale to the American people,” Boehner said during his weekly press conference.
An obviously frustrated Cantor agreed, arguing, “He’s got to make the case to the American people as far as Syria is concerned.”
At the heart of the problem, Republicans said privately, is the legislative affairs office in the White House, headed up by Miguel Rodriguez. Traditionally, “Leg Affairs,” as it is known in the halls of Congress, is tasked with developing personal and political relationships with lawmakers. The office is traditionally occupied by White House staff adept at greasing palms or twisting arms, and providing the president and his top advisors with intelligence on lawmakers disposition and strategies for dealing with them.
But under Rodriguez’s control, the office has taken a nontraditional approach that has rankled Capitol Hill.
A senior Republican leadership aide who has dealt with the Rodriguez’s office didn’t mince words when describing it’s work with Republicans. “Leg affairs is an abject failure [on Syria] … they’re totally worthless,” the aide said.
“For the most part, most members don’t even know who Rodriguez is … and that office is typically filed by backslappers,” a second leadership aide said.
“It’s a serious problem. The president is not getting good advice [from his legislative liaisons] and we’re not getting the counsel we need on what the White House wants,” the leadership aide said. “Imagine what a personal phone call last week from the president would have done for some of these freshmen?”
One Republican aide, jokingly asked if the White House’s outreach is as bad as Washington’s notoriously ill-managed subway system, quipped, “In terms of outreach to House Republicans, I can’t grade on that scale. Even Metro trains sometimes arrive at their destination.”
And it’s not just how the White House is reaching out to lawmakers that frustrates Republicans, but also what they view as a lack of advice to Obama and his team.
Several Republicans pointed to the decision by Organizing for America — Obama’s outside messaging operation — to mount protests against Republicans including Boehner over Obamacare.
“If the President is going to win the vote on Syria, he’s going to have to use all the resources he can … and having OFA sitting on the sidelines, or – worse – whacking people he needs to vote with him doesn’t help at all,” a GOP aide said recently.
The White House declined to comment on the record for this story.
This is not the first time Boehner, in particular, has found himself working with Obama despite opposition from his conservative wing.
During his first two years as Speaker, Boehner repeatedly sought to cobble together a “Grand Bargain” with Obama to solve the nation’s economic and fiscal woes. Those efforts collapsed largely due to ardent opposition from conservatives. But even then, a lack of a robust legislative outreach operation on Obama’s part hamstrung bipartisanship, Republicans contend.
“This dates back all the way to the stimulus. Obama hasn’t shown any interest in dealing with Congress,” the second leadership aide argued, warning efforts to address the debt ceiling next month could once again fail if the White House doesn’t begin building bridges to Capitol hill. “Right now, there aren’t any back channels. How are we going to get this done if their leg affairs office is still amateur hour?”
A senior Republican leadership aide who has dealt with the Rodriguez’ office didn’t mince words when describing it’s work with Republicans. “Leg affairs is an abject failure [on Syria] … they’re totally worthless,” the aide said.
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