At a lunch meant to set the table for a new dynamic between the White House and Congress, President Obama sat surrounded by somber and stone-faced leaders of both parties Friday as they began to test the waters to see if Washington’s gridlock might yet give way to cooperation in the final two years of the president’s term.
House Speaker John Boehner, presumptive Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and their Democratic counterparts met with Obama at the White House. On the menu was a healthy lunch of lettuce and endive salad, herb-crusted sea bass and candied ginger treats to lighten the mood.
At the top of the meeting, Obama pledged to judge ideas not by whether they come from Democrats or Republicans but by “whether or not they work.”
Coming three days after Obama’s party was pummeled in the midterm elections, the meeting offered the first clues as to whether Obama and congressional Republicans would be able to put aside years of deep-seated differences.
The dynamic in Washington, on the heels of Republicans’ midterm gains, is volatile. Both sides claim to be interested in working together, yet Obama is vowing to use executive action to address immigration in a matter of weeks, and Boehner is warning him in no uncertain terms to stand down.
“He’s going to burn himself if he continues to go down this path,” Boehner said Thursday.
Yet immigration was just one of the many thorny issues sure to come up as Obama sat down with congressional leaders in the Old Family Dining Room in the White House.
Tensions between the two sides have been simmering since Tuesday. Boehner warned Obama ahead of the summit that if he proceeds on immigration on his own, he’ll “poison the well” for cooperation with Congress. If the bipartisan spirit dissipates, frustrated voters could see another two years of gridlock, with little progress toward tackling the soaring national debt, boosting the economy and more.
Obama and congressional leaders have had these kinds of meetings before. But Washington’s power structure is changing.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Obama’s failsafe for his first six years in office, is about to lose his grip on the upper chamber. McConnell of Kentucky is riding a wave of electoral success into the top job. Boehner, R-Ohio, is carrying himself with renewed confidence after padding his majority, while House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California presides over a diminished minority.
If history is any gauge, there’s an opening — at least before 2016 politics consume Washington — for compromise. The Clinton-Gingrich era brought welfare reform. President George H.W. Bush worked with a Democratic Congress to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. President Richard Nixon even worked with a Democratic Congress on significant environmental legislation and regulation.
In the hours after voters delivered their verdict, both Obama and McConnell waxed optimistic about the potential to find common ground, despite the rancor and wide ideological gulf that has undermined such cooperation in the past. Both parties cited dense issues like patent laws and tax reform where Obama and Republicans see at least partially eye to eye.
“I’m sure there will be plenty of things for us to disagree about,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday. “But if there’s an opportunity for us to find some common ground, let’s make sure that our differences don’t get in the way of us being able to make some progress for the American people.”
But bipartisan aspirations to find ways to work together were quickly tempered as it became clear that the same thorny issues that divided Democrats and Republicans before the election will only be more likely to erupt once Republicans can push legislation through both chambers and to Obama’s desk unimpeded by Senate Democrats.
McConnell vowed renewed efforts next year to chip away at Obama’s health care law — his signature legislative achievement from the brief era just after his election when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate. Republicans in both chambers put Obama on notice they plan to twist his arm on the long-delayed Keystone XL oil pipeline that the GOP wants approved.
As part of Friday’s session, Obama has invited Gen. Lloyd Austin of U.S. Central Command, who heads American military operations throughout the Middle East, to brief lawmakers about the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State group. In one of his first requests to Congress after the election, Obama announced he would seek new authorization from Congress for the mission.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.