Over lunch, GOP leaders press Obama to hold off on immigration action

President Obama speaks during a lunch at the White House, surrounded by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
(Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images)
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Still dusting himself off after this week’s electoral pounding, President Obama hosted triumphant Republicans and vanquished Democrats for lunch Friday, observing an odd Washington tradition: the post-election reconciliation meal.

But what was designed to be a first attempt at a fresh start instead turned into a new round of confrontation over immigration reform, as Republican leaders again warned Obama that taking executive action to change the legal status of some immigrants in the country illegally could spoil any hope of compromise on that and a range of other issues before the new Congress even convenes next year.

“The American people sent a strong message Tuesday that they want Washington to work together, and I made clear to the president that we should tackle immigration reform together on a step-by-step basis,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Republican whip, said in a statement. “The president’s promise to unilaterally go around Congress ignores the message voters sent on election day.”


House Speaker John A. Boehner likewise “warned that unilateral action by the president on executive amnesty will erase any chances of doing immigration reform,” his office said.

As lunch was being served Friday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest reiterated that before the end of the year the president intends to take action – unless the House votes on a bipartisan immigration bill first.

“The president has the opportunity to do something really good for our economy and really good for the American people. He can do so using the authority that he has under the law and under the Constitution of the United States,” Earnest said.

Aides say Obama was making the same case in the room, at some length. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) said that both parties faced an opportunity to reset their relationship, and that the president acting unilaterally on immigration would potentially spoil it.

“You shouldn’t miss this moment,” McCarthy said, according to a source familiar with the discussion.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) told reporters that she hoped Republicans would bring an immigration bill the Senate passed last year to a vote, but that she believed Obama had the authority to act if not. A Democratic congressional aide said Obama was “both courteous and firm” in outlining his case on immigration and other issues.


Obama greeted the bipartisan group of 14 congressional leaders in the Old Family Dining Room, and congratulated Boehner and the soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for “running very strong campaigns.”

On the menu was sea bass, legislative haggling and humble pie. Off the table was the Kentucky bourbon that Obama said off-the-cuff this week that he’d share with McConnell.

Americans, Obama observed, showed they are “frustrated by the gridlock. They’d like to see more cooperation.

“And I think all of us have the responsibility, me in particular, to try to make that happen,” he said.

Such talk of reconciliation has been common in the days after Republican trounced Democrats in races across the country, reclaiming control of the Senate and tightening their hold on the House. Both the president and GOP leadership have sketched out potential areas of compromise – unfinished trade deals, long-elusive tax reform and infrastructure spending. But such hopes have quickly taken a back seat to the coming clash over immigration.

As the group ate, immigration activists protested outside the gate of the White House, a reminder of the pressure on the administration to follow through on its promise.

Friday’s lunch included more than a dozen lawmakers from both parties, and another dozen senior administration officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, who provided an update on U.S. efforts to combat Islamic State militants.


The administration has requested an additional $5.6 billion for its counter-terrorism strategy, one that will be taken up in the lame-duck session of Congress set to begin late next week.

Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

Twitter: @khennessey