President Barack Obama used his bully pulpit on Tuesday to repeatedly criticize Congress – and Republicans in particular – for inaction that would threaten to scuttle parts of his second-term agenda.
On issues ranging from federal spending to health care, immigration, and even closing the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Obama was eager to place the blame for inaction with lawmakers, who are absent from Washington on a scheduled recess this week.
“You seem to suggest that somehow these folks over there have no responsibilities, and that my job is to somehow get them to behave,” Obama said in response to one question at Tuesday’s White House press conference. “That’s their job.”
Obama’s appearance before the press corps coincided with the anniversary of the first 100 days of the president’s second term, which has included some setbacks for his agenda, but also some green shoots of promise. Still, much of the gridlock that characterized the latter half of Obama’s first term has extended to the beginning of his second, and the president hasn’t been able to overcome dogged Republican opposition.
“We understand that we’re in divided government right now,” Obama said. “Republicans control the House of Representatives; in the Senate, this habit of requiring 60 votes for even the most modest piece of legislation has gummed up the works there.”
That could be read as a thinly-veiled reference to one of the cornerstones of Obama’s second-term agenda – a package of stricter gun laws that expand background checks. Democrats were forced to shelve even a scaled-back, bipartisan proposal after Republicans insisted that the proposal not only muster a simple majority of senators, but also the 60 or more votes needed to dispel a filibuster.
The defeat (advocates of gun control characterize it as only a temporary setback) reflects a familiar pattern during Obama’s dealings with Republicans in Congress.
And the president used his first press conference in nearly two months to go after the GOP, accusing them, for instance, of political expediency in bemoaning the negative consequences of the sequester, the automatic series of spending cuts that began on March 1.
“Despite the fact that a lot of members of Congress were suggesting this was a victory for them and this wouldn't hurt the economy, what we know now is that what I was warned earlier ... is happening,” he said. “It slowed our growth, it's resulting in people being thrown out of work, and it's hurting folks all across the country.”
The president has made some overtures to Republicans, though, in hopes of breaking through the legislative logjam. Most notably, Obama’s hosted a series of dinners with senators, some consisting solely of Republicans, in hopes of cajoling GOP leaders into reaching compromises on some issues.
On matters like tax reform, such a bipartisan accord might be elusive. But on immigration, an achievement might be within reach.
Obama lauded a bipartisan group of eight senators’ work to craft a comprehensive immigration reform proposal which includes a pathway to citizenship.
“I feel confident that the bipartisan work that's been done on immigration reform will result in a bill that passes the Senate, passes the House, and gets on my desk,” he said.
But even that effort must overcome the objections of some Senate conservatives, and make its way through a Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Obama was careful not to wave off a GOP-led effort to create an alternative immigration proposal, but warned that it must meet his criteria (one of which is a pathway to citizenship) to win his support.
“If it doesn't meet those criteria, then I will not support such a bill,” the president declared.
Even still, Obama vowed to push forward with key elements of his agenda – like implementing the signature health care overhaul law he won during his first term – over the opposition of Republicans.
The president defended the implementation of the law as mostly complete, and goal-oriented for the elements that aren’t, in face of some Democratic griping over the way “Obamacare” has been enacted. And he acknowledged that some Republican governors’ refusal to enact health insurance exchanges had made implementation more difficult.
“I think it's harder, there's no doubt about it,” Obama said of those governors’ opposition.
But, he added: “We will implement it. We have a backup federal exchange. If states aren't cooperating, we set up a federal exchange so that people can access that federal exchange. But yes, it puts more of a burden on us.”