Disentangled from showdowns or looming crises, President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner held a rare one-on-one Oval Office meeting Tuesday addressing potential areas of common ground that could lay a foundation for more ambitious goals like immigration and trade that remain long shots for action this year.
Aides to both political rivals described the talks as “constructive,” but neither side signaled any significant breakthroughs.
Yet the one-hour session unfolded in an atmosphere in which both sides could benefit from modest bipartisan accomplishments. In addition to trade and immigration, aides said the speaker and Obama also discussed manufacturing, flood insurance, Obama’s health care law, upcoming spending bills, California drought relief, wildfire suppression and a highway construction bill.
The meeting took on special meaning because they are so infrequent. When they last met alone in December 2012, the two were in a standoff over taxes and spending during deficit-reduction talks. A new budget deal last month put those kinds of confrontations behind them.
Aides tried to downplay the significance of the face-to-face, noting that phone conversations between the two are not uncommon.
“We’re talking about a range of topics that reflect the things that we in Washington are working on, both here at the White House and in the administration and hopefully and potentially in Congress as well,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Still, Obama has made a point of demonstrating what he can do without Congress. Indeed, later Tuesday he announced the creation of two manufacturing centers that he was able to establish without congressional action.
The meeting also occurred amid a steady diet of Republican criticism of Obama’s health care law as both parties gird themselves for this year’s midterm elections.
But those fights belie possible agreements on bipartisan legislative proposals such as a highway construction bill, changes in patent laws, an overhaul of the federal flood insurance program and an expansion in the number of manufacturing centers like the ones Obama announced on Tuesday.
White House and Boehner allies see those steps as potential building blocks to tackle the thornier issues of immigration and trade.
Immigration legislation has stalled in the House. Boehner and GOP leaders unveiled a set of principles last month, but rank-and-file members have shown little inclination to tackle the divisive issue in an election year.
Advocates of changing immigration laws are pressuring Republicans to act but are also urging Obama to act on his own to curb the record number of deportations under his administration.
“Speaker Boehner knows that 2014 is the best opportunity for the GOP to get immigration reform done,” said Janet Murguia, the president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, a prominent Latino advocacy group. “What the Republicans do in the next 10 months will shape national politics for the next 10 years.”
She added: “The president knows that they can continue to pursue a legislative solution, but he can also do more to stop unnecessary deportations. He is aware of what that could mean for his legacy.”
On Tuesday, more than 600 business organizations, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to Apple to McDonald’s, sent a letter to Boehner pressing him to move on immigration legislation this year.
Obama just returned last week from a daylong summit in Toluca, Mexico, with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper where trade was a dominant subject in the trilateral discussions. Republican leaders have been urging Obama to make a push for a Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have resisted giving Obama the authority to move trade legislation quickly through Congress.
Obama “has made clear that moving forward on those trade agreements is priority for him,” Carney said. “It is also the case that this is an ongoing conversation that we’re having with members of Congress in both parties.”
Trade negotiations with the Pacific Rim nations are still underway, and Obama would likely wait until those talks were completed before seeking special authority from Congress to pass the deal. The best hope for passing immigration this year could well be after the November elections.
But some still hold out hope that Obama and Boehner can strike a type of grand deal on immigration and trade.
“It would be in the best interest of both parties to get a few big things done before the summer, showing the public they can work together and advance the national interest,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a Democratic-leaning Washington think tank and a longtime advocate of overhauling immigration laws. “I am still optimistic a few big things like immigration reform and trade promotional authority could get done in some spring `big bang’ between the two parties.”