Obama, Republicans spar over immigration at lunch


A White House lunch aiming for cooperation boiled into a fresh dispute with newly empowered Republicans over immigration reform, with Republican leaders warning President Barack Obama to his face not to take unilateral action. The President stood unflinchingly by his plan to act.

The White House gathering took place on Friday, three days after Republicans expanded their majority in the House of Representatives and wrested control of the Senate from the Democrats in midterm elections.

Republicans attending the post-election lunch at Mr. Obama’s invitation said they asked him for more time to work on immigration legislation, but the president said his patience was running out.

Mr. Obama, facing enormous pressure to act from Hispanics who form an important part of the Democratic base, reiterated his intent to act on his own by the end of the year if lawmakers don’t approve legislation to ease deportations before then and send it to him to sign.

The Republicans’ approach “seemed to fall on deaf ears,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said in a telephone 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.”

A bipartisan immigration bill, which would boost border security, increase visas for legal immigrants and provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally, has stalled in the House. There has been no indication that the House will vote before the newly elected Congress takes over in January.

Mr. Obama press secretary Josh Earnest said there was no reason that executive action on immigration should kill opportunities for the president and Republicans to find common ground.

The White House said that Mr. Obama laid out three areas where he and Congress 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.

And the White House said, “The president reiterated his commitment to taking action on immigration reform in light of the House’s inability to pass a comprehensive bill.”

The meeting was tense at times, according to a senior House Republican aide. The aide was not authorized to describe the back-and-forth publicly by name and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, about to lose his grip on the upper chamber, barely said a word. The aide said at one point as House Speaker John 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. Mr. Obama angrily cut Mr. Biden off, the aide said.

In public, Mr. Obama’s tone had been more upbeat as he opened the gathering. 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.

Reporters were ushered out before any lawmaker spoke or lunch was served. Republican descriptions of the meeting were provided after it ended, with aides speaking only on condition of anonymity.

Mr. Boehner’s office said he suggested that the president should back a Republican jobs bill as a starting place for bipartisan action.

Mr. Obama said at the start he was interested in “hearing and sharing ideas” for compromise on measures to boost the economy, then mentioned his personal priorities of university affordability and investment in road and building projects. He also touted improved monthly job growth numbers out Friday as evidence his economic policies are working, saying, “We’re doing something right here.”

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2020 8:52:21 AM |

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