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High Hopes, Wide Gulf as Obama, GOP Look for Common Ground

By on February 2, 2016

WASHINGTON – Can President Barack Obama and Republicans put aside years of ill will to secure a few big breakthroughs in Obama’s final year? Don’t get your hopes up.

There were scant signs of consensus Tuesday as Obama met at the White House with GOP leaders of the House and Senate, hoping to find common ground on trade, drug abuse and criminal justice reform. While both sides professed a general interest in working together, the deep ideological gulf between them seemed wider than ever.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared content to simply wait this president out, hoping a Republican successor will give the GOP the full deck it needs to press its priorities unimpeded. “The days of Barack Obama’s presidency are numbered,” Ryan said before the meeting.

Ryan and Obama also had a private lunch, their first since the congressman became speaker in October with a mandate to unite an unruly cast of House Republicans whose prime point of agreement is that Obama’s agenda must be stopped. Obama and McConnell have ridden this merry-go-round before, striking big deals occasionally, but more often not.

Illustrating how hard Republicans were still fighting Obama’s agenda seven years in, the House held its umpteenth vote Tuesday evening to repeal his health care law, trying but failing to override Obama’s veto.

Still, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama was pleased to host the leaders, calling it a sign that despite heated partisanship in an election year, Democrats and Republicans can have a good-faith conversation about the country’s priorities.

“It’s not treasonous to do that,” Earnest said. “In fact, it’s part of the responsibility that goes along with leadership.”

Ryan, speaking after the weekly GOP caucus, said he hoped he and Obama could “put those disagreements in check and see where the common ground is.”

Obama has scaled back his legislative ambitions from the sweeping proposals he pushed earlier in his term. But he still needs Congress to help finish what he’s started in certain areas – trade being chief among them.

Prospects for approving the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the lynchpin of Obama’s trade agenda, appeared even farther off as McConnell and Ryan emerged from the meeting. Although Republicans and business groups generally support the free-trade deal, McConnell hasn’t yet backed it, and has suggested Congress shouldn’t vote to ratify it until the lame-duck period after the November elections.

But the Kentucky Republican seemed even more definitive Tuesday that he won’t support a vote at all this year.

“The Speaker is a free trader. I’m a free trader and obviously the president is as well,” McConnell said. “There are a number of flaws here. We’re going to keep on talking about it and seeing if there’s a way forward.”

Another Obama priority, a new war powers resolution, didn’t even come up, McConnell said. Though Republicans are demanding Obama intensify the fight against the Islamic State group, they’re opposed to the limited, no-ground-troops resolution Obama has proposed. The White House argues Republicans have failed to offer any viable alternative to Obama’s IS strategy.

Where Obama and the Republicans did seem to find fertile ground was on a set of lower-tier issues with less of a partisan tilt. Ryan’s office and the White House said the leaders had conferred about Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis, the alarming heroin epidemic, Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer initiative and a criminal justice overhaul. All are issues both parties have said they want to address.

Heading into Obama’s final year, perhaps no issue seemed riper for compromise than a criminal justice overhaul. In an early sign of progress, a Senate panel approved legislation easing strict sentencing requirements for some nonviolent offenders.

But the bill’s GOP backers downplay prospects for a breakthrough this year, and many Republicans are wary of looking weak on crime in an election year. McConnell hasn’t committed to holding a vote on the overhaul, but suggested he wouldn’t let politics get in the way.

“The presidential candidates are not going to dictate the agenda in the Senate,” he said, one day after conservative firebrand and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz rode to victory in the Iowa Republican presidential caucuses.

Earnest, responding to Ryan’s comments about Obama’s days being numbered, waxed optimistic that Obama’s absence from this year’s ballot could smooth the path for compromise.

“If that makes it easier for us to get some business done in Congress that’s going to benefit the American people,” Earnest said, “then maybe we should hold the Iowa caucus every day.”

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