It’s Washington’s billion-dollar question: whether President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans can really make nice and forestall ever-greater dysfunction in a new era of divided government. The first clues will come when the president breaks bread with leaders from both parties at the White House.
Three days after midterm elections that were brutal for Democrats, Obama is inviting 16 top-ranking lawmakers on Friday to search for territory ripe for compromise. On the agenda is a host of unfinished business that the current Congress must wrap up before a new, fully Republican-controlled Congress is seated early next year.
The last meeting between the president and congressional leaders, before Tuesday’s elections, was on Obama’s terms. But much has changed.
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. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is riding a wave of electoral success into the top job. House Speaker John 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.
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.
Boehner, in his first news conference after the elections, warned Obama on Thursday that following through with his plans to take sweeping executive action on immigration would be like playing with matches.
“He’s going to burn himself if he continues to go down this path,” Boehner said.
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.
Earnest, the Obama spokesman, wouldn’t disclose the menu for the working lunch in the Old Family Dining Room. But in a nod to Obama’s invitation to McConnell a day earlier to drink Kentucky bourbon together, Earnest said such a summit wasn’t on the books.
“Not yet, but stay tuned,” he said.
Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at https://twitter.com/joshledermanAP
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