WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican victors of Tuesday’s U.S. congressional elections broke bread with Democratic President Barack Obama on Friday. On the menu besides sea bass: whether the two sides can put aside differences and agree on some legislation in the two years to come.
But Obama and congressional leaders spent a considerable part of the two-hour lunch rehashing immigration reform, a political fight left over from the last two years, before Republicans seized control of both houses of Congress in the Nov. 4 vote.
During the two-hour lunch in a small private dining room, Obama told Republicans he is committed to using his executive powers to ease some restrictions on undocumented residents, since House Republicans have steadfastly refused to advance immigration legislation, the White House said.
“We told him that would be a toxic decision,” Senator John Barrasso, the No. 4 Republican in the Senate, told Reuters in a telephone interview after the lunch.
Republican Speaker John Boehner asked Obama to let Republicans work on reforming and modernizing immigration early in the new session, Barrasso said.
Vice President Joe Biden asked Boehner how long he needed to pass a bill: “February 15? March 15?” said one congressional source familiar with the discussions, who said Obama was visibly irritated and stopped Biden.
But another congressional source disputed that account. “At no time did the President cut off the Vice President,” said the Democratic source, describing Obama as “courteous and firm” during the immigration discussion.
In a statement, Boehner said he warned Obama that executive action on immigration would “erase any chances” for Congress to take up a reform law, and said the move would “also make it harder for Congress and the White House to work together successfully on other areas where there might otherwise be common ground.”
Steny Hoyer, a top Democrat in the House of Representatives, said Obama was right to stop waiting and move ahead.
“Families are being wrenched apart, children are being left without a parent or parents, and that is unacceptable,” Hoyer said on CNN.
“But he also made it very clear that if the Congress acted, that would be the law, that would be the preferable option that he wants,” Hoyer said.
At the start of the lunch, the leaders appeared somber and slightly uncomfortable during a brief four-minute photo op.
Obama was sandwiched between Boehner and Democratic Senator Harry Reid, who will lose his title as Senate majority leader in the new Congress after a wave of Republican support swept Democrats out of power.
Beside Reid: Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, whose party takes control of the Senate in January.
Obama said he had promised leaders to be open to good ideas for legislation, whether from Republicans or Democrats.
“The American people just want to see work done,” Obama said before the leaders tucked into a lunch of herb-crusted sea bass, a salad of Bibb lettuce and pumpkin tart.
“I think they’re frustrated by the gridlock. They’d like to see more cooperation. I think all of us have the responsibility, me in particular, to try to make that happen,” said Obama, whose second and last four-year term ends in January 2017.
There was little substantive discussion about new legislation in areas where they may be common ground, like trade or infrastructure or tax reform, participants said.
Barrasso, asked if he felt that there might be some cooperation between Obama and Republicans, said: ”He’s going to have to decide whether to work with us.
“The full impact of the elections have not really sunk in yet,” Barrasso said.
Much of the meeting was taken up by discussion of major bills that must be passed promptly, once Congress begins its post-election “lame duck” session on Wednesday.
It will be the “old” Congress, the one that ends its legislative session in mid-December and has a Democratic Senate pitted against a Republican House.
At the top of the list is a $1 trillion spending bill to keep the government running beyond Dec. 11, when current funding runs out.
General Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, updated the leaders on the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
Shortly after the meeting, the White House announced that Obama had authorized the deployment of up to 1,500 additional U.S. troops to help train and advise Iraqi and Kurdish forces. That decision would bring the total number of troops there as high as 3,100.
Obama is asking Congress for $5.6 billion for operations in Iraq and Syria, including $1.6 billion for the new deployment.
He is also asking for more than $6.1 billion in emergency funding to battle the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and to make sure that U.S. hospitals are prepared to handle additional cases of the disease.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell, Richard Cowan and Patricia Zengerle; editing by Dan Grebler, Howard Goller, Marguerita Choy and Andrew Hay