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Obama, Boehner spar on timing of big jobs speech

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 31 2011 3:55 p.m. MDT

President Barack Obama walks from the podium after speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011, to urge Congress to pass a federal highway bill.  (Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press) President Barack Obama walks from the podium after speaking in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011, to urge Congress to pass a federal highway bill. (Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — In a sudden political shoving match, President Barack Obama asked Congress to convene an extraordinary joint session next Wednesday to hear his much-anticipated proposals to put jobless Americans back to work but House Speaker John Boehner balked and told the president he ought to wait and speak a day later.

If Obama gets his way, his speech will upstage a Republican presidential debate scheduled for the same time. If Boehner prevails, the president's address could conflict with the opening game of the National Football League season.

There was no immediate resolution to the sparring match.

Obama asked Congress on Wednesday for a prime time slot on Sept. 7, giving him a grand stage for a televised address and putting him face to face with Republican lawmakers who have bitterly opposed his agenda and vow to vote down any new spending he might propose.

President Barack Obama walks to the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011, to urge Congress to pass a federal highway bill.  (Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press) President Barack Obama walks to the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011, to urge Congress to pass a federal highway bill. (Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press)

His appearance also would be a political poke in the eye at GOP presidential candidates who are to gather for a campaign debate in Simi Valley, Calif., at the same hour as the president's speech.

Usually, presidential requests to address Congress are routinely granted after discussions between the White House and lawmakers. But Boehner, in his formal reply, said that the House would not return until the day Obama wanted to speak and that logistical and parliamentary issues might be an obstacle. The House and the Senate each would have to adopt a resolution to allow a joint session for the president.

Boehner's letter did not mention the Republican debate on Wednesday or Thursday night's televised opening NFL game between the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers. But the political gamesmanship was clear.

Tweeted GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich: "From one Speaker to another...nicely done John. "

Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, had no objection to Obama's request. "Senator Reid welcomes President Obama to address Congress any day of the week," said Adam Jentleson, a spokesman.

Obama is expected to lay out proposals to increase hiring with a blend of tax incentives for business and government spending for public works projects. With July unemployment at 9.1 percent and the economy in a dangerously sluggish recovery, Obama's plan has consequences for millions of Americans and for his own political prospects. The president has made clear he will ask for extensions of a payroll tax cut for workers and jobless benefits for the unemployed. Those two elements would cost about $175 billion.

"It is our responsibility to find bipartisan solutions to help grow our economy, and if we are willing to put country before party, I am confident we can do just that," Obama wrote Wednesday in a letter to Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The high-profile address illustrates how, in a divided, highly partisan Washington atmosphere, Obama wants to portray himself as the pacesetter for the national agenda.

The White House request came on the same day Obama issued an appeal to Congress to renew legislation to fund highways and air travel that he said would protect a million jobs. The law at issue expires Sept. 30. A Senate proposal would last two years and cost $109 billion, while the House is considering a six-year bill that could cut spending from current levels.

The White House said Obama also has directed the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Interior, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development to identify up to three high-priority projects each that would create jobs and that already have a source of money, to more quickly add jobs.

White House officials say all details of the president's address have not been decided.

Among those that are under consideration are tax credits for businesses that expand their payrolls. The president has proposed a similar effort totaling $33 billion before. The White House also is looking at a school construction and renovation plan of up to $50 billion.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus criticized Obama for seeking to schedule his address at the same time as a Republican presidential debate in the Reagan Library in California.

In a message posted on the Twitter social network, Priebus said: "BarackObama request to give jobs speech the same night as GOP Presidential debate is further proof this WH is all politics all the time."

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the overlapping was a coincidence.

"Obviously, one debate of many that's on one channel of many was not enough reason not to have the speech at the time that we decided to have it," Carney said.

The one-upmanship has possible benefits for the president, overshadowing a debate that is to serve as the first test for Republican front-runner Rick Perry, the Texas governor, alongside his GOP opponents.

"The most immediate gain is he deflates a very big Republican balloon, which is that debate," said Ross Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University. "It also imprints this with the kind of gravity that even a prime speech would not have. There is a ceremonial aspect to it that underscores the symbolic power of the presidency."

Joint sessions of Congress are typically reserved for presidential State of the Union addresses. But Obama also spoke to a joint session in September 2009 to press Congress to pass health care legislation. That speech, however, did not prompt quick action. A final bill did not pass Congress until March of 2010.

Using a joint session of Congress as a forum also places a hot spotlight on Obama's address and sets high and risky expectations for his jobs plan.

"The risks are you are upping the ante, and it's going to invite the response," said Patrick Griffin, former White House legislative director under President Bill Clinton. "All the action is in the reaction."

Or, as Baker said: "If you're going to set a table for a state banquet, you better have a pretty elaborate meal."

Obama and White House officials say he intends to propose measures that should receive bipartisan support because they contain ideas embraced by both parties. He has also issued an overt threat to take his case directly to the public if Congress does not act.

"If they see one side not willing to work with the other to move the country forward, then that's what elections are all about," Obama said in an interview with talk radio host Tom Joyner this week. "So we're going to be in a struggle for probably the next 16, 17 months."

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