President Obama and Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanHouse markup of ObamaCare repeal bill up in the air Trump: House GOP's plan for border tax could create more jobs Conservatives to Congress: Get moving MORE on Tuesday had their first face-to-face meeting since the Wisconsin Republican took the reins of the House last fall, but neither side appeared willing to put down their swords.
The goal for the closed-door lunch, which came after a joint meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellSanders: 'If you don't have the guts to face your constituents,' you shouldn't be in Congress McConnell: Trump's speech should be 'tweet free' Protesters crash McConnell's speech MORE (R-Ky.), was to identify bipartisan legislation that could overcome the traditional election-year gridlock and pass Congress.
Obama highlighted five priorities during the meeting: the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, criminal justice reform, heroin abuse, Vice President Biden’s “moonshot” bid to cure cancer and Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis.
McConnell and Ryan, meanwhile, pressed the president to aggressively combat the spread of the Zika virus, and the Speaker raised concerns about Obama’s enforcement of a new visa waiver law.
Despite their differences, White House press secretary Josh Earnest expressed hope that Ryan and McConnell would become “willing partners” in Obama’s final year in office.
“For all of the divisiveness and hateful rhetoric and pessimism and partisanship that we see on the campaign trail, it actually is possible for leading Republicans to sit down in the same office with a leading Democrat and have a conversation about the priorities of the country,” he said. “And it’s not treasonous to do that. It’s part of the responsibility that goes along with leadership.”
But expectations are low for action on Capitol Hill in 2016.
Obama has had a strained relationship with congressional Republicans since he was first elected president. And while last year’s budget agreement represented a major breakthrough, there are few incentives for the parties to work together in an election year.
In January, Obama sidestepped Congress to issue new executive actions on gun control, a move that incensed Republicans. Days later, GOP lawmakers sent an ObamaCare repeal bill to the president’s desk for the first time. The House voted to override Obama’s veto on that measure on the same day as Ryan’s meeting with Obama.
“It’s almost like it’s ‘Groundhog Day,’ except that today actually is Groundhog Day, and they’re doing it again,” Earnest quipped, referring to the 1993 comedy.
McConnell is wary of moving legislation that could divide his conference in an election year, be it Obama’s signature trade deal or an overhaul of the nation’s sentencing laws.
The Kentucky Republican warned Obama late last year he would risk defeat of the trade pact if he pushed for passage before the 2016 elections. McConnell also has concerns about language in the deal pertaining to tobacco products, a major export from his home state.
The majority leader said Tuesday he agreed to continue talking with Obama about the 12-nation agreement but reiterated his problems with it.
“What we agreed to do is to continue to talk about it. The Speaker is a free trader. I’m a free trader and obviously the president is as well,” he told reporters at the Capitol following the meeting. “There are a number of flaws here. We’re going to keep on talking about it and see if there’s a way forward.”
Unlike McConnell, Ryan has indicated he is open to a vote on the trade deal this year. But the Speaker “discussed a number of concerns that lawmakers have raised about the substance of TPP” with Obama, his office said.
Earnest stressed Obama wants a TPP vote before the elections but indicated the president did not set a target date. The agreement is set to be signed Feb. 4, triggering the process for congressional action.
“We haven’t laid out any firm deadlines at this point. We have just made the case that it would be good for the country and our economy for the Trans-Pacific Partnership to be approved by Congress as soon as possible,” the spokesman said.
Two topics that didn’t come up at the meeting, according to the readouts, were the authorization for use of military force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and a plan to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison — two Obama priorities that are staunchly opposed by most Republicans.
There has been less saber-rattling over opioid legislation and the cancer initiative. The meeting came on the same day the White House announced it would ask Congress for $1.1 billion to fight heroin and prescription painkiller abuse in next year’s budget. It’s also requesting $755 million to back Biden’s cancer push.
Despite the bipartisan theme of the meeting, tensions between Obama and Republican leaders in Congress appear as stubborn as ever.
Reporters were unable to get a glimpse of the atmosphere during the private lunch, but Obama and Ryan have tussled for years. They were in no rush to schedule their first official meeting — Ryan was elected Speaker on Oct. 29.
His office blasted out an email Tuesday morning denouncing Obama’s yet-to-be-released budget blueprint as a “bloated” document “that grows the government.”
“Look, I ran against the guy in the last election, so I think we definitely have different opinions, we have different philosophies and principles,” Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential nominee, told reporters ahead of the meeting. “
“We get along with each other personally, we agree to disagree on these things, and so we will put those disagreements in check, see where the common ground is.”
But he also couldn’t resist the chance to take a dig at the president, saying he was excited voting in the presidential election has gotten underway because “what this tells me is the days of Barack ObamaBarack ObamaPoll: ObamaCare support hits new high How the candidates for DNC chair stack up ahead of Saturday's vote Ginsburg: Trump Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is 'very easy to get along with' MORE’s presidency are numbered.”
Obama has gotten in his fair share of licks. He memorably dressed down Ryan’s budget in an April 2011 economic speech attended by the then-Budget Committee chairman. And the two sparred constantly when Ryan was Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012.
Even as he stressed the importance of finding areas of agreement with Republicans, Earnest sounded like he wasn’t crossing his fingers.
“I’m not really sure that qualifies as the contours of a proactive legislative agenda,” he said of the ObamaCare repeal vote. “But it does put some pressure on Speaker Ryan, Leader McConnell and other Republicans in Congress to lay out what it is exactly they support and try to find some common ground with the administration.”