WASHINGTON, D.C. — With less than a year left in office, President Obama is directing much of his energy to the few areas where he may be able to compromise with the Republican-controlled Congress to get things done.
Obama met with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on Tuesday to figure out how much room for compromise actually exists in Congress. The New York Times reported that the president expressed optimism in the meetings that his administration could work with Congress “to address five key goals: the financial crisis in Puerto Rico, ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, providing money for an initiative to fight cancer, confronting a resurgence of heroin addiction and overhauling the nation’s criminal justice system.”
But don’t hold your breath for an overhaul of the criminal justice system, passage of the TPP, or really any measures being advanced. A number of Republicans in Congress said Wednesday they do not intend to compromise with their own party, let alone with the president or Democrats in Congress. And they have the power to block anything from being done.
Ryan spoke about the divisions in the Republican Party at a policy forum hosted by Heritage Action in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, pointing to groups within the party which demand things that are unachievable and refuse to work across the aisle in any way.
“When voices in the conservative movement demand things that they know we can’t achieve with a Democrat in the White House, all that does is depress our base and in turn help Democrats stay in the White House,” Ryan said. “We can’t do that anymore.”
Just a few hours later, four members of the roughly 40-person House Freedom Caucus, a faction of hardline Republicans, said that they will not work with the president and that realism and compromise will cause Republicans to lose elections.
Freedom Caucus member Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) directly addressed Ryan’s comments, saying that the measures the Speaker thinks are “unachievable” are actually just practical, “small things.”
“On the omnibus, the big spending legislation that happened at the end of last calendar year, our group went to leadership and we asked for a couple small things,” he said. “We said do something on this pro-life issue — after all we have this organization that gets your tax dollars and does all kinds of disgusting things. We said it doesn’t have to be defunded completely, but let’s just do something that’s going to protect the sanctity of life.”
Jordan is referring to the Freedom Caucus’ attempts to defund Planned Parenthood last year — the group wanted to include in the budget “sanctity of life” provisions that would have stopped federal funds from going to Planned Parenthood, the largest women’s health organization, and other health care clinics that provide abortions, even though federal funding does not go toward abortions.
Another “small thing” Jordan pointed to was a request that legislation to reject Syrian refugees be tucked inside the must-pass omnibus spending measure. The bill would have temporarily halted Obama’s plan to bring roughly 10,000 refugees to the United States because of the persistent threats they face in Syria.
The inclusion of either in the omnibus would likely have led to a government shutdown.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) also implied Wednesday that he is not willing to compromise with others in his party, let alone with Democrats. He said that while he knows he has to be realistic with his expectations, “when you have the will of the people and their voice behind you, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.”
But Meadows’ efforts have led to more standstill than actual accomplishments. He and a group of his colleagues in the House this week scheduled a vote on legislation to repeal Obamacare, after more than 60 failed attempts. Unsurprisingly, the vote to overturn Obama’s veto of the legislation is expected to stall because Republicans will not be able to secure the necessary two-thirds majority to override Obama’s veto.
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID), also a member of the Freedom Caucus, said that it doesn’t make sense for Republicans to limit themselves to legislation that is achievable, pointing to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) presidential campaign.
“I understand what Paul [Ryan] is saying, or trying to say, but let’s look at the reality,” he said. “You have the Republican Party on one hand saying be realistic, which I think we should be, but don’t engage in fights you can’t win. The Democratic Party on the other hand is telling their voters we’re going to do the things you want us to do. You have right now a socialist telling his party that he’s going to give them free health care, free education, all these things.”
“Nobody is telling him, ‘hey, you need to be a little more realistic about your goals,'” Labrador said, to laughs from the Heritage audience. “He’s the most popular person in the Democratic Party right now.”
Labrador added that being “realistic” in 2012 lost Republicans the presidency. “You want to lose? Then become realistic,” he said.
But Ryan remained optimistic on Wednesday that conservatives could still come together and unite around “a bold, pro-growth agenda” during Obama’s last year in the White House
“The left would love nothing more than for a fragmented conservative movement to stand in a circular firing squad, so the progressives can win by default,” he said.
Ryan personally knows what it’s like to be the target of that firing squad. After the Freedom Caucus pushed Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) out of the position, nine members of the ultra-conservative group rejected Ryan’s nomination to take over. Although Ryan was eventually elected, the disagreement created a contentious month when it looked like the House was too divided to choose a new Speaker.