WASHINGTON — Facing the future leaders of a Republican-controlled Congress, President Barack Obama pledged Friday to judge ideas in his final two years not by whether they come from Democrats or Republicans but by “whether or not they work.”
Obama invited 16 top lawmakers from both parties to a White House luncheon to search for areas where they might manage to work together in the new year. Coming three days after Obama’s party was pummeled in the midterm elections, the meeting offered the first clues as to whether Obama and congressional Republicans would be able to put aside years of deep-seated differences.
Obama, seated between House Speaker John Boehner and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said he congratulated both Republicans “for running very strong campaigns.” He said the election results showed Americans are frustrated with gridlock and want Washington to start getting things done.
“They’d like to see more cooperation,” Obama said. “And I think all of us have the responsibility — me in particular — to try to get that done.”
Obama sounded an upbeat if conciliatory tone as he and the leaders began their meeting in the Old Family Dining Room. He cited the lunch as a good opportunity to explore ways for political leaders to make progress on behalf of American voters.
Of the Republican leaders, he said: “I’m confident they want to produce results as well.”
As part of Friday’s session, Obama invited Gen. Lloyd Austin of U.S. Central Command, who heads American military operations throughout the Middle East, to brief lawmakers about the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State group. In one of his first requests to Congress after the election, Obama announced he would seek new authorization from Congress for the mission.
The last meeting between the president and congressional leaders, before Tuesday’s elections, had been on Obama’s terms. But much has changed.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Obama’s backstop for his first six years in office, is about to lose his grip on the upper chamber. McConnell, R-Ky., is riding a wave of electoral success into the top job. Boehner, R-Ohio, is carrying himself with renewed confidence after padding his majority, while House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California presides over a diminished minority.
In the hours after voters delivered their verdict, both Obama and McConnell waxed optimistic about the potential to find common ground, despite the rancor and wide ideological gulf that has undermined such cooperation in the past. Both parties cited dense issues like patent laws and tax reform where Obama and Republicans see at least partially eye to eye.
But bipartisan aspirations to find ways to work together were quickly tempered as it became clear that the same thorny issues that divided Democrats and Republicans before the election will only be more likely to erupt once Republicans can push legislation through both chambers and to Obama’s desk unimpeded by Senate Democrats.
McConnell vowed renewed efforts next year to chip away at Obama’s health care law — his signature legislative achievement from the brief era just after his election when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate. Republicans in both chambers put Obama on notice they plan to twist his arm on the long-delayed Keystone XL oil pipeline that the GOP wants approved.
Boehner, in his first news conference after the elections, warned Obama on Thursday that following through with his plans to take sweeping executive action on immigration would be like playing with matches.
“He’s going to burn himself if he continues to go down this path,” Boehner said.
Earnest, the Obama spokesman, wouldn’t disclose the menu for the working lunch. But in a nod to Obama’s invitation to McConnell a day earlier to drink Kentucky bourbon together, Earnest said such a summit wasn’t on the books.
“Not yet,” he said. “But stay tuned.”