WASHINGTON – There were scant signs of consensus Tuesday as President Barack Obama met at the White House with opposition Republican leaders of the House and Senate, hoping to find common ground on trade, drug abuse and criminal justice reform in his final year in office. 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 party the full power 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 planned its umpteenth vote Tuesday evening to repeal Obama’s health care law.
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 meeting of Republican lawmakers, 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 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 Islamic State 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.
The House meanwhile failed Tuesday to override Obama’s veto of legislation that would have dismantled his signature health care law, the Affordable Care Act.
At least a two-thirds vote of the House was needed to knock down Obama’s veto; the Republican-majority House fell short by more than three dozen votes. The vote was 241-186, and ends consideration of the bill; the Senate will not take it up.
The widely expected outcome was the latest chapter in the lengthy clash between Republicans and Democrats over the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Republicans have been vowing to gut the law since 2010, when the then Democratic-majority Congress passed the landmark program designed to provide healthcare for millions of uninsured Americans.
The House has voted to dismantle Obamacare dozens of times, but Republicans could not get a repeal through the Senate until late last year, when they used a procedural maneuver denying Democrats’ ability to block the legislation.
Obama vetoed the bill last month; it was the eighth veto of his presidency, and none has been overridden.
Republicans were anxious to show they had done everything they could to take down Obamacare, which they say has raised insurance costs and reduced health care choices. They said Tuesday that this was not the end of the story.
“The end of Obamacare is coming,” predicted Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. “When a Republican president takes office next year, we know we can get this passed. … Obamacare can be gone once and for all.”
Such a scenario assumes, however, that the Republicans capture the White House in November elections, and maintain their majorities in the Senate and House as well.
Democrats mocked Republicans, saying they were proposing to deprive millions of their health insurance without a replacement.
“While we have voted as of today 63 times to dismantle it, how many times have we voted to replace it? Zero! Zero times to replace it!” declared Rep. Chris van Hollen, a Democrat.
The bill also would have taken funds away from Planned Parenthood, another target of Republican criticism after undercover videos showed the women’s health care provider discussing the use of fetus parts for research.
Two anti-abortion activists behind the filming of the videos were indicted by a Texas grand jury last month, while the jury cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing.