WASHINGTON — As a result of a decisive GOP Senate takeover in the election Tuesday, President Obama and top Republicans announced intentions Wednesday to work together and avoid partisan bickering — but the outlines of upcoming battles began to show.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, who will be elevated to Senate majority leader next year, said that Republicans, in control of the Senate and House for the first time since 2006, will seek common ground with the president on issues on which they can make progress, such as foreign trade deals and tax changes. He emphasized small legislative goals, not a broad ideological agenda.
“Let me make it clear: There will be no government shutdowns and no default on the national debt,” he said. He said he understands that he will not have enough votes to overturn a presidential veto, so it is impractical to expect Congress to fully repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Obama matched the GOP’s conciliatory tone and agreed that tax and trade policies could be fertile ground for compromise. “(Americans) expect the people they elect to work as hard as they do. They expect us to focus on their ambitions and not ours,” the president said.
But while talking about cooperation and getting things done, both sides foreshadowed what could be the first bruising fight of the new political reality: immigration.
As he has for several months, Obama said again that he is preparing to use his executive authority to rewrite the nation’s immigration policies, because Congress has been unable to pass legislation to do so.
“Before the end of the year, we’re going to take whatever lawful actions that I can take, that I believe will improve the functioning of our immigration system, (and) that will allow us to surge additional resources to the border, where I think the vast majority of Americans have the deepest concern,” Obama said.
But McConnell had warned minutes before that this was not a good idea.
“I think the president choosing to do a lot of things unilaterally on immigration would be a big mistake,” he said at a news conference in Louisville. “It’s an issue that most of my members want to address legislatively. And it’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull to say if you guys don’t do what I want, I’m going to do it on my own. … I hope he won’t do that, because I do think it poisons the well for the opportunity to address a very important domestic issue.”
Kyle Downey, a former GOP congressional aide, said if Obama moves forward with an executive order on immigration policy, it will likely blow up any prospects for compromise with Republicans in his final two years in office.
“The ball is entirely in the president’s court,” Downey said. “If he responds to both the electorate and the clear majority they are sending to Washington with executive orders on immigration or any number of issues outside of fighting ISIS or Ebola, he will be setting a tone of confrontation and inviting two years of gridlock.”
Republicans will face pressure from their conservative base to renew efforts to repeal Obama’s health care law. McConnell conceded that Republicans will not be able to repeal the law but said they could take aim at pieces of it, such as an unpopular tax on medical devices, as well as the individual mandate that requires most people to obtain health insurance or pay a tax penalty. “The individual mandate, people hate it,” McConnell said.
Obama said he would be willing to deal on changes to the law but said upending the mandate was out of bounds.
So far, Republicans have netted seven seats for at least a 52-seat majority come January. Alaska’s Senate race had not yet been called, but Republicans are likely to gain another seat there with Dan Sullivan running ahead of Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Begich. Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu heads to a Dec. 6 runoff against GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy.
In the weeks leading to Election Day, GOP congressional leaders have been quietly crafting an agenda that party leaders say is aimed at improving the public’s view of Congress broadly and the Republican Party in particular. Despite significant GOP gains on Tuesday, the public still holds a dim view of both.
“Our party will ultimately be judged on how we govern, and that is what we were elected to do,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who ran the House GOP’s campaign operation that has resulted in the biggest Republican majority since the World War II era.
Republicans are pledging to pass a budget through Congress next year, and they are eyeing an overhaul of the nation’s tax code. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is the likely next chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over the tax code, and will play a starring role in that effort. Republicans are also eyeing ways to use the budget process to reduce entitlement spending and rein in Obamacare.
“We’re going to function. We’re going to pass legislation,” McConnell said.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who ran the Senate GOP’s campaign operation echoed McConnell. “The message that was delivered to us (from voters) was: We expect to have policies put in place that the American people support, and we expect you to work together to accomplish that,” Moran told reporters Wednesday. Capturing the majority “gives us a great opportunity to prove that we can govern and set the stage for a successful 2016,” Moran said.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement that House Republicans are expected to advance bills they say will grow jobs as well as a broad, new energy package. Republicans have clashed repeatedly with the administration over the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which faces a renewed prospect for passage, although industry demand for it has diminished.
McConnell said a stalled Asian trade deal could be reinvigorated next year.
Obama also has a legislative agenda in mind. On Wednesday, Obama sent Congress a request for $6.2 billion in emergency spending to battle Ebola in West Africa. And he said he would seek specific congressional authorization for use of military force against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria — something he previously said was unnecessary but that he said would send a united message to the world.
“It’s time to take care of business,” Obama said. “There are things we have to do that can’t wait another two years or four years,” he said.
The president has invited McConnell, Reid, and other congressional leaders to the White House on Friday. The agenda includes plans for the lame-duck congressional session that opens in mid-November.
Obama and McConnell spoke by phone Wednesday. McConnell called it a “good discussion.” Obama said he congratulated McConnell and appreciated his words about working together.
In fact, Obama even offered his trademark alcohol-infused olive branch. “I would enjoy having some Kentucky bourbon with Mitch McConnell,” he said.