WASHINGTON — President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner held their first one-on-one meeting in more than a year Tuesday at the White House, but the discussion was another indication that the prospects for big, bipartisan deal-making are slim.
As the midterm election approaches, legislating has nearly ground to a halt in the divided Congress. The Oval Office meeting had the appearance of two leaders putting forward their best effort to show they remained ready to work together, despite the breakdown of their earlier talks.
"We had a nice meeting," Boehner said as he returned to the Capitol, declining to say more.
Tuesday's meeting came as Obama was preparing his fiscal 2015 budget and after his assertion that he would not wait for Congress to act on his initiatives, but would use his "pen" and "phone" to take action. That stance has infuriated House Republicans, who have denounced it as presidential overreach.
The two men met for about an hour and talked about a range of issues, including trade, immigration and the new healthcare law, White House and congressional officials said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama and Boehner (R-Ohio) discussed the administration's struggle to seal an agreement with Afghanistan on the terms of leaving a U.S. military contingent next year, as well as the California drought and the president's hopes for restructuring the way the federal government pays for firefighting during wildfire season.
They also discussed trade, Carney said, although he would not reveal whether the two men had devised a strategy for overcoming opposition among Democrats to two sweeping trade deals in the pipeline.
Noticeably absent was any public revival of the negotiations on deficit reduction, entitlement reform or a tax code overhaul that drove them apart. Ever since the two failed in 2012 to reach a "grand bargain" during the "fiscal cliff" negotiations -- when Boehner could not lead the House Republican majority to accept a budget plan that would prevent a tax hike and spending cuts — the speaker has said he's no longer interested in negotiating one-on-one with the president.
Even that turbulent time in their history remained a point of debate. Boehner's office said the two men had not had a formal one-on-one meeting since Dec. 17, 2012, although they have talked by phone.
The White House would not confirm the last time Obama and Boehner met, and suggested there were conversations that had not been publicized. Carney argued that the relationship and the possibility of compromise had not suffered despite the lack of regular face time. The White House recently retooled its legislative team to better engage Capitol Hill.
"I think it's a press misconception that the success or failure of legislation in Congress depends on the relationship between a president and a speaker, or a president and a leader in Congress," Carney said. "The president's relationship with the speaker — as the speaker has said and the president has said — is, has always been, solid. And the problem we've had in the past here in Washington has been often the dictation that has been provided by a segment of the House Republican Congress over what the House of Representatives would or would not do."
One issue both leaders would like to tackle this year is immigration reform. But the speaker has been reluctant to attempt to move a bill in the face of intense opposition from some conservatives in his ranks.
And the possibility that Congress would consider tax reform, as the Republican chairman of the House tax committee has proposed, were dashed by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday. The minority leader suggested that his party would be unwilling to raise new revenue to reach a compromise with the White House. "I don't see how we can," he said.