In a surreal volley of letters, each released to the news media as soon as it was sent, Mr. Boehner rejected a request from the president to address a joint session of Congress next Wednesday at 8 p.m. — the same night that a Republican presidential debate is scheduled.
In an extraordinary turn, the House speaker fired back his own letter to the president saying, in a word, no. Might the president be able to reschedule for the following night, Sept. 8?
For several hours, the day turned into a very public game of chicken.
By late Wednesday night, though, the White House issued a statement saying that because Mr. Obama “is focused on the urgent need to create jobs and grow our economy,” he “welcomes the opportunity to address a joint session of Congress on Thursday, Sept. 8.”
The president had sent in the first volley with his request for a speech next Wednesday night, when Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is scheduled to debate his fellow would-be Republican presidential nominees for the first time.
“No, of course not,” the White House press secretary, Jay Carney, replied when a reporter asked if the timing of the president’s speech had been meant to play havoc with the Republican debate plans. He said that “one debate of many was no reason not to have a speech when we wanted to have it.”
Mr. Boehner was not budging.
“As the majority leader announced more than a month ago, the House will not be in session until Wednesday, Sept. 7, with votes at 6:30 that evening,” the speaker wrote. “With the significant amount of time, typically more than three hours, that is required to allow for a security sweep of the House chamber before receiving a president, it is my recommendation that your address be held on the following evening, when we can ensure there will be no parliamentary or logistical impediments that might detract from your remarks.”
Mr. Boehner did not specify what votes were scheduled for 6:30 that evening that could not be moved. The House calendar shows that members are expected to vote on the “suspension calendar,” generally minor bills like naming a post office.
Congressional historians said Mr. Boehner’s move was unprecedented.
“The Senate Historical Office knows of no instance in which Congress refused the president permission to speak before a joint session of Congress,” Betty K. Koed, associate historian with the Senate, said in an e-mail. “Permission to speak in a joint session is given by resolution of the House and Senate, and arrangements are made through the leadership offices of each chamber.”
White House officials held talks with Mr. Boehner’s office into the night Wednesday. At 9:17 p.m., the White House released a statement to the news media saying it had agreed to change the date to Sept. 8.
A White House official said Mr. Obama and his advisers had chosen Wednesday because it was Congress’s first day back. “The debate was never really an issue,” because there are a total of 20 and three this month alone, said the official, who would not allow his name to be used because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “Had Mr. Boehner told us he had a problem with Wednesday this morning,” when the White House consulted him, the official said, “we would have done Thursday from the beginning.”
The scheduling clash came at a time when public confidence in Washington to move beyond partisan bickering is at historic lows. The fracas also had the potential to rattle already jittery markets.
“If the objective of the White House and Speaker Boehner was to demonstrate to the American people that they have gotten the message from the markets and from voters that our economic straits are so dire that it is time to set petty politics aside, they have failed before they started,” said David Rothkopf, a former Commerce Department official in the Clinton administration. “This childish gamesmanship regarding timing reconfirms to the world that Washington is a sandbox full of petulant children who don’t play well together.” He called Wednesday’s antics “late-summer silliness.”
Michael D. Shear and Jennifer Steinhauer contributed reporting.