President Obama wouldn’t go so far as to say he and his party took a “shellacking” from the Republicans Tuesday night, as he did four years ago in describing another major midterm election setback for his party. But at a post-election White House news conference on Wednesday afternoon, he conceded, “Obviously, Republicans had a good night, and they deserve credit for running good campaigns.”
After conferring by phone with Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky – the soon-to-be new Majority Leader of the Senate – and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), the president said that he had gotten the message from voters at the polls on Tuesday. He said he’s prepared to work closely with the new congressional GOP majority to pass needed legislation to keep the economic recovery going and somehow resolve differences over immigration reform.
“The American people sent a message – one that they’ve sent for several elections now,” he said during an hour-long news conference in the East Room of the White House. “They expect the people they elect to work as hard as they do. They expect us to focus on their ambitions and not ours.”
“It’s time for us to take care of business,” he added.
Obama held his news conference shortly after McConnell met with reporters in Louisville to discuss the Republican sweep of Congress that increased the GOP majority in the House and gave Republicans Senate control for the first time since 2006. Both men seemed to bend over backwards to be gracious to the other, and each posited theories on why this new iteration of divided government actually could break the partisan gridlock in Washington that has blocked important legislation for years.
“My interactions with Mitch McConnell – he has always been very straightforward with me,” the president said. “To his credit he has never made a promise that he couldn’t deliver. He knows the legislative process well; he knows his caucus well. He has always given me realistic assessments of what he can get through his caucus and what he can’t. So I think we can have a productive relationship."
On matters of substance, though, Obama veered from one topic to the next, signaling the things he might be willing to compromise on and others that were non-negotiable or problematic. Here are highlights:
This is arguably the biggest bone of contention between Obama and congressional Republicans. Obama insisted he would issue an executive order before year’s end to scale back the deportation of millions of illegal immigrants, including those who recently came here from Central America.
In June, the president had vowed to take executive action on a myriad of immigration issues that Congress has yet to address, but then postponed it until after the election at the urging of some Democratic senators struggling to win reelection.
Now he intends to move ahead with his plans before the end of the year, despite McConnell’s warning that it would be like “waving a red flag in front of a bull” and enrage Republicans.
“Before the end of the year, we’re going to take whatever lawful action that I can take,” Obama said, while insisting he would withdraw the order if Republicans came up with an immigration bill acceptable to him. “I am eager to see what they have to offer, but what I’m not going to do is just wait.”
The military campaign against ISIS:
Obama said for the first time he’s willing to negotiate with Republicans over new legislative authority to expand military operations into Syria, beyond the previous authority granted for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Until now, the president and many congressional Democratic leaders argued there was no need for additional authority. However, McConnell has insisted that additional authority is necessary and that it would draw broad support from hawks and liberal Democrats alike.
“I'm going to begin engaging Congress over a new Authorization to Use Military Force against ISIL,” Obama said yesterday. “The world needs to know we are united behind this effort, and the men and women of our military deserve our clear and unified support.”
Iran’s nuclear program:
Obama dodged a question about whether he’d feel obliged to seek congressional approval of any deal the administration strikes with the Iranians over the future of Iran’s nuclear program and a possible easing of international economic sanctions. Republicans want any deal to be subject to congressional review.
Obama described the negotiations as “constructive” and said the U.S. and its international partners, including Russia, have been unified.
As for his authority to relax sanctions without congressional approval, he said he wants to see “if we in fact have a deal. If we do have a deal that I have confidence will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and that we can convince the world and the public will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, then it will be time to engage Congress.”
The president seemed to indicate some flexibility in his stand on the Affordable Care Act, for the first time saying he would consider some changes sought by Republicans. But he said he would refuse to allow a wholesale change or repeal of the program, or the elimination of the mandate that requires the uninsured to purchase health insurance on a government-run exchange.
“On health care, there are certainly some lines I’m going to draw,” he said. “On the other hand, what I have said is there’s no law that's ever been passed that is perfect.” He said, “I’m going to be very open and receptive” to ideas from McConnell and Boehner.
Trade, tax reform, infrastructure:
Obama said he would be willing to compromise with Republicans on trade, corporate tax reform and infrastructure spending. He even offered to seek offsetting savings to fund an expansion of job-generating federal highway, bridge and transit programs by closing tax loopholes.
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