On White House, congressional lunch menu Friday: compromise

The president and Republican leaders, who will have complete control over Congress come January, all say they want to work together on areas where they think they can find agreement.

From left, expected incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.

After Democrats got trounced in the midterm elections, President Obama and leaders of Congress from both parties will break bread and talk compromise over lunch at the White House on Friday.

The president and Republican leaders, who will have complete control over Congress come January, all say they want to work together on areas where they think they can find agreement. They are traveling a road littered with incendiary explosive devices – issues like immigration reform and the Affordable Care Act, animosities, the next election. But they also face a fed-up public willing to boot nonperformers. 

The discussions will start with the unfinished business of the lame-duck session of Congress, which will convene on Nov. 12. That would include issues such as the budget, Ebola (the president this week asked Congress for $6 billion in emergency funds), and fighting the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS.

Mr. Obama said Wednesday he will seek authorization from Congress to use military force in the mission. Lawmakers have been waiting for that formal request, which is sure to unleash a debate over America’s role in the fight. At the lunch, Gen. Lloyd Austin, who heads American military operations throughout the Middle East, will give a briefing on the mission.

Beyond this, the president, House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, and the expected new Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, have all identified another set of possible areas where they could work together. 

Political observers point to several issues as the most promising, but even these will require difficult compromises by both sides: 

Tax reform: Democrats and Republicans would have a better chance of success if they focused on reducing the corporate tax rate, which they both want, rather than going for a complete overhaul of the tax system.

But they disagree on these key questions: Should the individual tax rate that covers many small businesses also be reduced? Should revenue from corporations be raised to pay for America’s sagging infrastructure? 

Trade: In his State of the Union speech this year, President Obama asked Congress to give him the ability to more easily negotiate international trade agreements. But Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada turned a deaf ear. Among other things, Democrats object to the job losses associated with free-trade deals.

Republican leaders, however, see free trade as an economy booster, and now the president has a willing partner for the Asian and European deals that the administration is working on. Many rank-and-file Republicans, however, are also skeptical. Leaders and the president will have to work this on both sides.

Roads, rails, bridges. Infrastructure has traditionally been a bipartisan issue, but it’s been very difficult to move ahead on this one because of disagreements on how to pay for it. For instance, the gas tax that funds highway and bridge repair is not as effective as it used to be.

But laws that cover the country’s highway, aviation, and train infrastructure all come up for renewal in the next Congress. Deadlines can provide a great incentive to get things done. So can this: Several GOP senators up for reelection next time live in some of the most traveled states.

Surveillance. This Congress came close to passing legislation to deal with the public outrage over US intelligence agencies and their gathering of information from private phone calls. Unless they finish the job in the lame duck session, lawmakers will have to reboot the process because each new Congress starts with a fresh slate.

Still, there is broad agreement with the president that metadata for domestic calls should be held by phone companies – not the government – even if questions remain on what to do about data relating to people outside the United States. The current law relating to data collection expires in May, another reason to get moving. 

Trickier issues remain, including changes to the Affordable Care Act and the Keystone XL Pipeline.

“I can’t think of one [issue] where it won’t require both sides to come to the middle,” said Tom Daschle, former Democratic Senate majority leader, at a Bipartisan Policy Center event this week.

An early sign of willingness to get there, he said, is if these meetings with the president become a pattern.

“I hope it’s at least once a week,” he said, pointing to weekly meetings for a time between Democratic congressional leaders and President George W. Bush. It's important to “keep that line of communication open.”

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