Mark 3:14 p.m. Monday as the moment when President Barack Obama’s always-overhyped congressional charm offensive was officially called to a halt.
That was when the president’s legislative affairs staff dispatched a curt and totally unapologetic email informing every senator and House member that one of their two guaranteed invitations to the White House for the year had been rescinded.
The congressional picnic, an annual right of early summer for more than three decades, has been postponed indefinitely.
“We are hopeful that we will be able to reschedule this event for September,” was all the hope the email offered. “Thank you.”
No official reason was given, although administration officials only magnified the slight with their backchannel explanation.
The move had nothing to do with the sequester, they asserted defensively, remembering all the lawmaker annoyance after blaming the across-the-board cuts at the Secret Service for the cancellation, at least through September, of White House tours. (Some disgruntled members proposed keeping the tours by cutting the presidential entertainment budget.)
Instead, aides offered, the decision had everything to do with the already overstuffed presidential schedule.
But what that means is that — whether because of West Wing disdain or East Wing incompetence — nobody penciled in the picnic for a weeknight in June before it was too late.
To many lawmakers, it matters not at all which staffers are to blame. Either by commission or omission, they’ve been dissed by the president once again.
And this is a snub they’ll likely remember long after the president’s second-term agenda has been dispatched.
No White House tours might make life a tiny bit more politically difficult for the relative handful of members looking to a tough re-election campaign, because the tickets are one of the few sort-of-cool perks they can deliver to school groups in electorally competitive communities, or to corporate executives and pastors who backed their opponent last time.
No dinner at the Jefferson Hotel might have stung a few senators, as well, because the White House signaled it was only inviting potential members of the “common sense caucus” — members of both parties who might be persuaded to avoid reflexive partisanship now and again.
But no picnic? That will hit many House members and senators right where they live — or, more accurately, right where they don’t live as often as they might like.
The party has been a hallowed event for many congressional schedulers — a rare occasion for the member to bring the spouse and the kids to town for a weeknight flavored with special Washington glamour and history and without any campaign money panhandling at all.
Obama seemed to understand this, and at the congressional picnics he’s hosted, he always made a point of thanking the families for making the sacrifices of the political life.
“The birthday parties that get missed, or the soccer games that you’re late to, the travel that keeps you away from your loved ones, all of that obviously is in service of our country,” he said to last June’s throng, gathered on the South Lawn in their pressed chino shorts, gingham shirts and bright linen sleeveless dresses. “We are thrilled you have at least one day where you get a chance to be together in Washington and nobody’s arguing.”
That party — featuring six different kinds of barbecue — happened with everyone knowing the Supreme Court would announce its health care ruling the next morning and with House Republicans about to push through a measure holding Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt. But White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that the president never thought about canceling such “a great American tradition.”
That was so election-year. Safely ensconced for his second term, Obama apparently sees no problem anymore in dispatching with a night’s worth of compulsory congressional pleasantries. Working to expand his extraordinarily modest network of Hill contacts — “the smallest Rolodex ever when he hit town,” as the Democratic dean of the House, John D. Dingell, put it last week — is manifestly no longer worth his time.
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