President Barack Obama and the likely new leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, pledged Wednesday to work together to govern the nation in a bipartisan way a day after Republicans secured control of both chambers of Congress for the first time since Democrats won the White House in 2008.
But the goal could prove daunting after years of political dysfunction that left Congress and the White House unable to compromise, as well as a pledge by Obama to issue an executive order this year that would provide temporary legal status to some of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. It’s a move sure to anger Republicans.
“The American people sent a message, one that they’ve sent for several elections now,” Obama said in a lengthy news conference in the East Room of the White House. “They expect the people they elect to work as hard as they do. They expect us to focus on their ambitions and not ours. They want us to get the job done. All of us in both parties have a responsibility to address that sentiment.”
McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who expects to become Senate majority leader next week, acknowledged that he needs to cooperate with Obama because the president has the power to veto legislation.
“I want to first look for areas that we can agree on, and there probably are some,” McConnell said at a press conference in Louisville, Ky. “That’s what we’re going to be talking about in the next few weeks.”
Obama said he would talk to Republicans leaders about investing in infrastructure, such as roads and bridges; boosting exports; expanding early childhood education; helping students afford college; and increasing the minimum wage.
He also said he will ask the current Congress to spend $6.2 billion in emergency funds to fight the Ebola outbreak both in West Africa and the United States, pass a new authorization for military force against the Islamic State militant group and agree on a spending plan for the government.
McConnell said Republicans might be able to find common ground with Obama on changes to the tax code and international trade agreements, although he gave no specifics. But he said he would confront Obama on key issues and suggested Republicans would attempt to use spending bills to prevent money from being spent on rules that limit climate-warming gases from power plants that burn coal.
McConnell doesn’t have the 60 Senate votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster of major legislation. But he appeared dismissive of the need to give concessions to Democrats in Congress, saying, “There is only one Democrat who counts, the president. . . . Democrats in Congress will support whatever he agrees to do.”
McConnell said Republicans will attempt to roll back the federal health care law known as Obamacare. But Obama said he would draw a line at repeal or significant changes.
The two men have long had a rocky relationship, in part because of their different governing styles. The president has never been one to socialize or lobby lawmakers as he tries to push an agenda. Instead, he had tried to pressure Congress by rallying the public at campaign-style events across the nation or bypassing lawmakers altogether with executive actions.
McConnell is a veteran lawmaker with a history as a dealmaker, and he has kept his Senate caucus largely united. More recently he’s been known for his bitter partisan feuds with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that have helped define a Senate paralyzed by gridlock and dysfunction.
Obama and McConnell have not spent much time alone together. Once Tuesday’s election results were clear, Obama called McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as well as two dozen winners and losers of House, Senate and governors’ races from both parties. He invited the Democratic and Republican congressional leaders to the White House on Friday.
Obama declined to offer any specific changes in how he will approach the new Congress, or whether he will shuffle his staff. But he told reporters that he would be “spending a lot more time” with McConnell and Boehner, even joking he would have some Kentucky bourbon with McConnell and play another round of golf with Boehner.
“That’s the only way that we’re going to be able to get some stuff done,” he said. “And I take them at their word, that they want to produce. They’re the majority. They need to present their agenda. I need to put forward my best ideas.”
McConnell and Boehner have vowed to push the Republican agenda quickly and aggressively when the new Congress convenes in January.
Boehner, who has watched Republican bill after bill die for years in the Democratic-led Senate, pledged to hold votes on “commonsense jobs and energy bills that passed the Republican-led House in recent years with bipartisan support, but were never even brought to a vote by the outgoing Senate majority.”
It’s the first time since Obama took office that he’s faced both chambers of Congress under Republican control.
When he came into office in 2009, Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Republicans gained control of the House in 2010, picking up a net total of 63 seats in what Obama famously called a “shellacking.” Republicans have maintained the majority there and won the Senate on Tuesday.
Obama acknowledged that Republicans had a “good night” on Tuesday, but he did not offer any reasons for the Democrats’ massive losses in Congress or governor’s races, even in states he campaigned in. But he praised the democratic process.
“It doesn’t make me mopey,” he said. “It energizes me.”