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Obama's icy relationship with Congress: Can it ever thaw? (+video)

Tension and gridlock have defined dealings between President Obama and Congress ever since Republicans took control of the House in 2010. Yet big issues, including immigration and weak job growth, remain unresolved.

By Staff writer / February 24, 2014

President Obama talked with House Speaker John Boehner after the president participated in Q-and-A with the House Republican Conference last March.

Pete Souza/The White House

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Washington

Relations between the White House and Congress reached a low in February when House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio said it would be tough for the House to move on immigration reform this year. He cited a lack of trust in President Obama to implement a new immigration law, saying he's not enforcing current ones.

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This week, President Barack Obama promoted tougher fuel efficiency standards for trucks. He touted progress on initiatives to strengthen the U.S. patent system. Welcome to Obama's self-proclaimed "year of action." Hardly a day goes by without the president and his top advisers trumpeting policy initiatives the White House is undertaking without the help of Congress. Yet they do seem to be having a cathartic effect inside the White House, which was in need of a jolt after a frustrating and disjointed 2013.

Ever since Republicans took control of the House in 2010, tension and gridlock have defined dealings between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Indeed, 2013 went down as the least productive year for Congress since World War II, and it included an impasse between Mr. Obama and lawmakers that partially shut down the federal government for 16 days in the fall.

White House-Congress relations could get even more polarized if, in this fall's midterm elections, the GOP takes the Senate, where it needs a net gain of only six seats. Yet big issues, in addition to immigration, remain unresolved: weak job growth, America's expensive entitlement programs that drive up the national debt, and Iran's nuclear program, to name a few.

With three years to go in this presidency, can the relationship between Obama and Congress be saved in hopes of getting some business done? Or perhaps more realistically, can the relationship at least be improved?

It's easily forgotten, but "governing is hard work," says Leon Panetta, whose résumé includes Democratic congressman from California and former Defense secretary for Obama. "There's almost a sense now that if you run into any obstacles or you run into any serious differences, people almost give up and resort to blaming the other side."

Pinpointing the genesis of today's White House-Congress feud is like trying to unravel the rivalry between the Hatfields and McCoys. The most obvious cause is 2010, when the tea party movement poured enough Republicans into the House to flush Democrats from power and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California from the speaker's chair. Ideological rigidity stiffened.

But former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine points to the very start of the Obama administration, when the president and Democrats in Congress passed expensive and expansive legislation along party lines. That fueled "big government" concerns among Republicans and ignited the burner under the teakettle.

Less than a month after Obama took office in 2009, the $787 billion stimulus bill passed with only three Republican votes (including the moderate Senator Snowe's). In 2010, the mammoth Affordable Care Act passed with no GOP support. Wall Street reform went through later that year.

In her book "Fighting for Common Ground," Snowe recounts the president's many attempts to reach out to her during the health-care debate – at least eight meetings with him and more than a dozen phone calls.

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