WASHINGTON — In a retreat after an hourslong test of wills Wednesday, President Barack Obama agreed to deliver an address on jobs and the economy to a joint session of Congress on Sept. 8, yielding to House Speaker John Boehner, who had balked at Obama’s request for a Sept. 7 speech.
Obama’s address still gives him a grand stage to unveil his economic agenda, but it falls on the same evening as the opening game of the National Football League season. White House officials were working on the precise timing of the speech.
The change now will allow a planned Sept. 7 Republican presidential debate in Simi Valley, Calif., to proceed without Obama upstaging it.
Still, by seeking a rare joint session of Congress as his audience, Obama will get a nationally televised address that puts him face to face with Republican lawmakers who have bitterly opposed his agenda and who have vowed to vote down any new spending he might propose.
“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, R-Ohio, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
With new August unemployment numbers ready to be released Friday, Obama is under pressure to lay out his plan. In seeking a joint session of Congress to deliver it, he is turning the effort into a public relations campaign.
The timing dispute created an inauspicious start to the jobs debate and introduced tensions before Congress even returns from its annual summer recess.
It began with the White House releasing the letter at noon Wednesday from Obama to Boehner and Reid requesting they convene a joint session of Congress for his address at 8 p.m. on Sept. 7.
Usually, presidential requests to address Congress are routinely granted after consultations between the White House and lawmakers.
In this case, the White House notified Boehner’s office on the same day it released the letter requesting the session. A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said Boehner’s office raised no objections or concerns.
But Boehner, in his formal reply, said the House would not return until the day Obama wanted to speak and that security 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 spokesman Brendan Buck said no one in Boehner’s office signed off on the date and accused the White House of ignoring established protocol of arriving at a mutually agreed date before making public announcements.
Boehner’s letter did not mention the Republican debate on Wednesday or Thursday night’s NFL game between the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers, a game certain to draw a large television audience. Bu the political gamesmanship was clear.
Tweeted GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich: “From one Speaker to another … nicely done John. “
In a message posted on the Twitter social network, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince 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.”
In the Senate, Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina said he, for one, would object if Obama insisted on making his address on Wednesday.
“I’m planning to watch the Republican primary debate on the evening of Sept. 7, and the president should watch it too,” he said in a statement.
Carney said the timing chosen by the White House was a coincidence.
Negotiations between the White House and Boehner’s office ensued through the late afternoon and into the evening Wednesday
At about 9:15 p.m., White House spokesman Jay Carney issued a statement: “The president is focused on the urgent need to create jobs and grow our economy, so he welcomes the opportunity to address a Joint Session of Congress on Thursday, September 8th.”
White House officials say all details of the president’s address have not been decided.
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.
Ideas are under consideration include 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.
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 Rutgers University’s congressional expert Ross Baker put it: “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.”