President Obama and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan finally met for a private lunch Tuesday, but legislative wheeling and dealing wasn’t on the menu.
With both men focused largely on leading their respective parties through the 2016 campaign, neither was apparently interested in forging the kind of deal-making relationship seen between many past presidents and speakers.
Instead, they compared respective wish lists of high-priority legislative items all but certain to get caught up in election-year gridlock.
Obama, for example, wants lawmakers to approve his sweeping trade agreement with Pacific Rim nations, a proposal that Senate Republicans have signaled they may not pass before the next president takes office.
Ryan, meanwhile, left the lunch and returned to Capitol Hill for yet another vote to repeal Obamacare.
“It’s almost like it’s Groundhog Day,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
And so it went in their first one-on-one meeting since Ryan ascended to his new post, kicking off the official working relationship between two policy wonks who are unlikely to reach any significant agreements.
The president and Ryan already know each other fairly well, stemming from 2011 when the Wisconsin congressman pointedly questioned Obama during a House GOP retreat. A few months later the president publicly criticized Ryan’s budget ideas during a speech attended by the congressman.
“Look, I ran against the guy in the last election, so I think we definitely have different opinions,” Ryan, the GOP’s former vice presidential nominee, said Tuesday before the meeting. “We get along with each other. We agree to disagree on these things, and so we will put those disagreements in check, see where the common ground is.”
But his assessment late last year, offered to reporters on the day Obama called to invite him to the White House, was more pointed. "Arrogant, paternalistic and condescending," is how Ryan described Obama's presidency.
The meeting had been a long time in the making. In many ways, Ryan — who was drafted by his fellow Republicans to take over the speakership after John A. Boehner abruptly stepped down — had more to risk by dining with the president. Conservatives are test-driving the new speaker, who must convince them he is on their side and unwilling to bend to Democrats.
Obama, meanwhile, has little to lose as he remains hopeful he can work with Congress on key initiatives in his final months, including passage of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
But finding common ground on a broader legislative agenda is doubtful. Ryan has indicated that he would rather turn the House Republican majority this year into an idea factory on a tax code overhaul, welfare reform and other proposals that could provide a substantive foundation to what has so far been a rambunctious GOP presidential nominating process.
So during their sit-down at the White House, following a morning meeting with Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Obama and Ryan found little common ground in their priorities.
On Ryan’s rundown: the Zika virus, the opioid epidemic, criminal justice reform, Puerto Rico’s fiscal challenges and efforts to cure cancer. He also expressed concern about how the administration is implementing a new law restricting the visa-waiver program.
For Obama, who still wields a veto pen, the list included ratifying the trade deal and reforming the criminal justice system, one of the few issues where he may find common ground with Ryan.
Instead of backing away from the closure of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he is searching for ways relocate most of its remaining detainees.
As the Republicans left the White House, aides seemed stymied but not surprised. The main thing Republicans seem to want to do, said Earnest, is undo things Obama has done.
“I’m not really sure that qualifies as the contours of a proactive legislative agenda,” he said. “It does put some pressure on Speaker Ryan, Leader McConnell and other Republicans in Congress to lay out what it is exactly they support and try to find some common ground with the administration.”
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