President Obama found himself sandwiched between two scandals today at the White House.
By inviting his neighboring counterparts for the North American Leaders Summit, the president cast fresh attention on gun walking scandal Fast and Furious and the Keystone XL debacle while trying to keep the meeting focused on sustainable growth and job creation.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to the meeting with plans to sell more oil and gas to China after Obama’s denial of the Keystone pipeline, which would have carried some 700,000 barrels a day from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico.
Obama has since tried to shove the oil spill back into the barrel, so to speak, by touting his support for the southern leg of the project, capped by a promotional visit to Cushing, Okla., where that segment would begin and flow to the Gulf. He’s also said that TransCanada’s re-application for the cross-border part of the pipeline would be expedited in the permitting process.
House Speaker John Boehner put a well-timed Keystone name drop into the weekend’s Republican address, paving the way for Harper’s visit, in which he urged Obama to push the Senate to pass House-approved energy bills.
“About the only thing the president has pushed the Senate to do is to prevent construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a job-creating project that the American people strongly support,” Boehner said. “He personally lobbied Senate Democrats before the vote, and that may have made the difference.”
“What the president ought to be doing is approving the Keystone Pipeline,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday. “This is this massive private sector project that will bring energy down from our friendly neighbor, Canada, to the United States. He’s blocking it.”
The National Republican Campaign Committee even seized on the summit to send out an email against Ohio Democrat Betty Sutton, who’s in a hotly contested redistricted race this fall with fellow Rep. Jim Renacci (R).
“Betty Sutton had another chance after President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline’s jobs and energy independence, and she chose once again to pander to the Democrats’ radical anti-energy donors by voting against the pipeline,” said NRCC Communications Director Paul Lindsay. “Sutton’s efforts only managed to portray the United States as anti-business and anti-energy while pushing these potential manufacturing jobs and energy independence away to countries like China.”
But there was no mention of the pipeline at the Rose Garden press conference — where Harper’s statement was especially brief — and only broad energy references in the joint statement issued after their meeting by the three leaders.
“Energy cooperation reduces the cost of doing business and enhances economic competitiveness in North America. We recognize the growing regional and federal cooperation in the area of continental energy, including electricity generation and interconnection and welcome increasing North American energy trade,” they said, with the italics emphasis added by them. “We commit our governments to work with all stakeholders to deepen such cooperation to enhance our collective energy security, including the safe and efficient exploration and exploitation of resources. We support coordinated efforts to facilitate seamless energy flows on the interconnected grid and to promote trade and investment in clean energy technologies.”
Harper, however, opened up on the subject at another Washington event today at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
“We can’t be in a position that our one and only partner can say ‘no’ to our energy products,” the prime minister said of the Keystone delay and the need for Canada to find other markets for energy exports.
“When one looks at the other options, oil from the Middle East or Venezuela, the choice should be obvious,” Harper said.
On the “Furious” front, Mexican President Felipe Calderon alluded to gun trafficking in his press conference with his North American counterparts.
“Clearly, I expressed to President Obama and to Prime Minister Harper that the fight that Mexico is experiencing for a safer North America also requires a strengthening of national actions, amongst other things, to stop the traffic of weapons, to combat with greater strength money laundering, and, of course, to reduce the demand for drugs that strengthens criminal organizations,” he said.
When each country’s press delegation was allowed to direct one set of questions to the leaders, though, it was the Mexico journalist who pressed the issue. “We’d like to know what President Obama said in terms of what’s going to be done to stop the traffic of weapons,” the reporter asked.
Calderon, who is being term-limited out of office this year, turned his answer to a treatise against the proliferation of border weapons shops and gun rights in general.
“I have a great deal of respect for the U.S. legislation, especially the Second Amendment,” he said. “But I know that if we don’t stop the traffic of weapons into Mexico, also if we don’t have mechanisms to forbid the sale of weapons, such as we had in the ‘90s, or for registry of guns, at least for assault weapons, then we are never going to be able to stop the violence in Mexico or stop a future turning of those guns upon the U.S.”
The Mexican leader turned in a direction slightly more on the gunwalking side.
“I’m against the traffic of weapons anywhere, be that within any circumstance. The government of Mexico will never be able to accept anything that has to do with opening this,” Calderon said.
“President Obama has been very clear on the position of his government. We understand the work being done by the agencies to stop the criminals. But this cannot be an obstacle to the cooperation that we have to have amongst Mexico and the United States to stop these criminal activities that underlie this issue, which is one of the greatest obstacles and problems for Mexico.”
The ATF gunwalking scandal let weapons flow south of the border with the intent of tracking them to cartels. Out of the more than 2,000 firearms sold in Operation Fast and Furious, fewer than 700 have been recovered and some of the weapons have been implicated in the deaths of several Mexicans and Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.
“With respect to the issue of guns, I’ve made very clear in every meeting that I’ve had with Felipe — and we’ve actually put into practice efforts to stop illegal gun trafficking north to south,” Obama said. “It is a difficult task, but it’s one that we have taken very seriously and taken some unprecedented steps. We will continue to coordinate closely with the Mexican government because we recognize the toll that it’s taken with respect to families and innocent individuals inside of Mexico.”
“Obviously, President Calderon takes very seriously his responsibilities to apply effective law enforcement within Mexico,” the president added.
Last week, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) sent a letter to the White House complaining that the administration has not complied with several requests to interview Kevin O’Reilly, a former member of the National Security Staff, about emails with William Newell, the ATF special agent in charge of the Phoenix field office.
“Our staffs have had extensive discussions with lawyers in your office, who have represented that the White House does not perceive any need for us to interview O’Reilly and consequently will not make arrangements for him to speak to us,” the lawmakers wrote. “O’Reilly’s testimony is necessary to allow us to begin to determine the extent of the involvement — if any — of White House staff in Operation Fast and Furious.”
The letter gives an April 4 deadline for the White House to inform the congressional investigators of when O’Reilly, who is currently in Iraq but is sought for a phone interview, will be made available.