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Obama comes off sidelines as budget negotiations intensify

- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 7, 2011

Once criticized as too aloof, President Obama has forcefully stepped up his involvement in budget negotiations by repeatedly calling Capitol Hill's top Republican and top Democrat to the Oval Office, underscoring the new power balance in Washington with the House GOP having earned a seat at the table.

With the current spending fight to be followed soon by battles over next year's budget and the country's borrowing limit, House Speaker John A. Boehner says all sides had better get used to it, because that's how big issues are likely to be resolved.

"It's taken us some time to get acquainted with each other and to work our way through this, because — understand that this process that we're in is likely to be repeated a number of times this year. I think everyone is taking their time, trying to get this right," Mr. Boehner told reporters Thursday, describing the new dynamic as he and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, have been spending hours with Mr. Obama trying to hash out a deal to keep the government running.

Mr. Obama's investment of so much time into the negotiations has been recent. After weeks of being criticized for being absent from the discussions as a shutdown inched closer, the president this week made a full-court press that began with phone calls to Hill leaders on Saturday and evolved into a string of personal meetings at the White House.

Late Thursday night, after a second meeting with Mr. Boehner and Mr. Reid, the White House announced that Mr. Obama had canceled a planned trip to Indiana.

Earlier this week, press secretary Jay Carney described the idea that Mr. Obama and other top administration officials hadn't been deeply involved all along as mistaken.

"I think that there is a great misperception out there about the relative engagement of leadership on all sides in this," Mr. Carney said. "The engagement at the presidential level, at the vice presidential level, and at the senior staff level has been intense and regular and ongoing."

Mr. Obama initially tapped Vice President Joseph R. Biden as the White House's point man on the negotiations, dispatching the former senator to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. In early March, Mr. Biden drew flak for leaving in the middle of negotiations for a previously scheduled trip to Finland, Russia and Moldova.

The president himself garnered mild criticism Wednesday for departing Washington amid the talks to host a town-hall meeting on energy in Philadelphia and later headline a gala in New York City for the National Action Network, led by the Rev. Al Sharpton. Mr. Obama later summoned Mr. Boehner and Mr. Reid to the Oval Office for a second meeting upon his return to the White House late Wednesday.

Asked whether Mr. Obama thinks House Republicans were genuinely trying to prevent a shutdown, Mr. Carney said the president "is not interested in assigning motivation" and takes Mr. Boehner at his word.

Speaking early Thursday, though, Mr. Boehner seemed to signal that he wasn't sure all sides were trying to avoid a shutdown.

"Everyone's working — well, I don't want to say everyone — I'm going to continue to work to keep the government open, but there's still a disagreement in terms of making real spending cuts," he said.

Mr. Boehner told reporters this is the first time those in the room are dealing with the dynamic of a Republican-led House paired with a Senate and White House controlled by Democrats.

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