WASHINGTON (AP) – Disagreement wasn’t supposed to be on the menu at the White House luncheon designed to bring together President Barack Obama and Republicans who will soon control the next Congress. Instead of cooperation, a fresh dispute found its way to the table.
Meeting on Friday with congressional leaders from both parties, Obama laid out three areas where they could work together before the end of the year: emergency funding to combat the Ebola outbreak, approval of a federal budget and quick action on spending to fight the Islamic State militant group.
House Speaker John Boehner had a quick reply, his office says: The president should back a Republican jobs bill as a starting place for bipartisan action. In addition, GOP leaders warned Obama not to take unilateral action on immigration policies. But the president stood by his plan to act.
Still, there were some signs of thawing.
Boehner’s office says the House speaker told Obama he was ready to work with the president on a new authorization for military force against the IS militant group if Obama worked to build bipartisan support.
The White House announced soon after the lunch ended that the U.S. would send as many as 1,500 more troops to Iraq to serve as advisers, trainers and security personnel as part of the mission. Obama is also asking Congress for more than $5 billion to help fund the fight. The troops would not deploy until legislation passes and the president signs it.
The two-hour meeting was tense at times, according to a senior House Republican aide.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid barely said a word, the aide said. At one point, as Boehner was making an argument on immigration, Obama responded that his patience was running out and Vice President Joe Biden interrupted to ask how long Republicans needed, the aide said.
A Democratic congressional aide said Obama was courteous but firm in asserting his prerogatives as president on immigration and other issues. While Republicans were encouraging the president not to take action, Obama repeatedly called on GOP leaders to move forward on an immigration bill, the aide said.
The staffers were not authorized to describe the back-and-forth by name and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Obama’s tone was upbeat as he opened the gathering with reporters present. He pledged to work on ending long-running partisan gridlock and to be open to Republican ideas. The president said the lunch was a chance to “explore where we can make progress” after Americans showed in the midterm elections that they wanted to see more accomplished in Washington.
Republicans attending the postelection lunch at Obama’s invitation said they asked him for more time to work on legislation, but the president said his patience was running out. He underscored his intent to act on his own by the end of the year if they don’t approve legislation to ease deportations before then and send it to him to sign.
The Republicans’ approach, three days after they resoundingly won control of the Senate in midterm elections, “seemed to fall on deaf ears,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said in an interview. “The president, instead of being contrite or saying in effect to America, ‘I hear you,’ as a result of the referendum on his policies that drove this last election, he seems unmoved and even defiant.”
Cornyn said he did not know why Obama would want to “sabotage” his last two years as president by doing something so provocative as acting unilaterally on immigration. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell earlier this week said the president’s stance was “like waving a red flag in front of a bull.”
Reporters were ushered out before any lawmaker spoke or lunch was served. Descriptions of the meeting were provided after lawmakers returned to Capitol Hill.
Briefings on Ebola and the Islamic State militants from Pentagon officials dominated much of the meeting, and the immigration debate was said to have lasted about half an hour.
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