Sounding upbeat and conciliatory, President Obama met face-to-face with congressional leaders Friday for the first time since a Republican electoral takeover of the Senate upended the political landscape in Washington. He pledged to work on ending long-running partisan gridlock and to be open to Republican ideas even as differences remain stark.
Republicans left the White House without public statements, but comments bubbling out later underscored some of those differences.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said he had spoken out during the lunch against the idea of Mr. Obama acting on his own to ease the deportation threat against some immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.
"I made clear to the president that we should tackle immigration reform together on a step-by-step basis, beginning with border security and respect for the rule of law," Cornyn said. "Unfortunately the president's promise to unilaterally go around Congress ignores the message voters sent on Election Day."
Mr. Obama has said he may well act on his own if Congress fails to act on the issue, but he also has said he would greatly prefer that lawmakers pass legislation on immigration and send it to him to sign.
"Obviously, we've had a significant midterm election," he said ahead of the meeting Friday. "My attitude has been and will continue to be that good ideas don't necessarily come from just one party. And I'm looking forward to seeing the leaders of both Democratic and Republican caucuses this afternoon to have a chance to share with them both what I think we need to be doing to build on the economic momentum that we already have and make it even stronger."
Though deep-seeded differences on a number of issues don't seem to have abated with the election, Mr. Obama sounded a positive note as he thanked Republican leaders for their graciousness in joining him for lunch at the White House, along with top Democratic lawmakers. The president said the two-hour lunch was a chance to "explore where we can make progress" after Americans showed in the midterm that they want to see more accomplished in Washington.
"They'd like to see more cooperation," the president said, sitting at the middle of 13 lawmakers in the Old Family Dining Room set with the Truman china. "And I think all of us have the responsibility, me in particular, to try to make that happen."
A House Republican leadership aide said GOP leaders were using the meeting to suggest that the president should back their jobs bill as a starting place for bipartisan action. Mr. Obama said he was interested in "hearing and sharing ideas" for compromise on measures to boost the economy, then mentioned his personal priorities of college affordability and investment in road and building projects. He also touted improved monthly job growth numbers out Friday as evidence his economic policies are working, saying, "We're doing something right here."
Just last week, Mr. Obama was holding campaign rallies calling Republicans good people who are fine to have over for Thanksgiving dinner, even if they have bad ideas and shouldn't be in charge. Now he faces the two final years of his presidency with Republicans setting the agenda on Capitol Hill, and he opened by congratulating House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell for "running very strong campaigns."
"The one thing that I've committed to both Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell is that I am not going to judge ideas based on whether they're Democratic or Republican - I'm going to be judging them based whether or not they work," Mr. Obama said. "And I'm confident that they want to produce results as well on behalf of the American people."
Reporters were ushered out before any lawmaker spoke or lunch was served. The White House said the group dined on a three-course meal of salad, herb crusted sea bass and grilled vegetables, followed by a pumpkin tart with vanilla whipped cream and candied ginger.
The president said even before the new Congress takes over, lawmakers need to urgently address emergency Ebola money and new authorization for the fight against the Islamic State. Gen. Lloyd Austin of U.S. Central Command, who heads American military operations throughout the Middle East, updated the lawmakers about the U.S.-led fight against the IS group. In one of Mr. Obama's first requests to Congress after the election, he announced he would seek new authorization from Congress for the mission.
The white House announced soon after Friday's meeting that the U.S. is sending as many as 1,500 more troops to Iraq as part of that mission. Mr. Obama is also asking Congress for more than $5 billion to help fund the fight.
The White House says the troops won't serve in a combat role but will train, advise and assist Iraqi military and Kurdish forces.
On Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Mr. Obama's backstop for his first six years in office, is about to lose his grip on the upper chamber. McConnell, R-Ky., is riding a wave of electoral success into the top job. Boehner, R-Ohio, is carrying himself with renewed confidence after padding his majority, while House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California presides over a diminished minority.
In the hours after voters delivered their verdict, both the president and McConnell waxed optimistic about the potential to find common ground, despite the rancor and wide ideological gulf that has undermined such cooperation in the past. Both parties cited dense issues such as patent laws and tax reform where Mr. Obama and Republicans see at least partially eye to eye.
But McConnell has vowed renewed efforts next year to chip away at the president's health care law, his signature legislative achievement from the brief era just after his election when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate.