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Despite milder tone after White House meeting, immigration may pose political impasse

The leaders of the Republican-controlled Congress were among more than a dozen lawmakers who gathered at the White House to talk common ground and areas of conflict with President Obama. Political director Domenico Montanaro and political editor Lisa Desjardins join Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff to discuss the tone of the meeting and the persistent political sticking points.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    More than a dozen Capitol Hill lawmakers from both parties gathered around a table in the White House Cabinet Room today to talk shared priorities and shared difference.

    It was the first face-to-face exchange between President Obama and leaders of the revamped Republican-controlled Congress. The president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both indicated they are in search of compromise.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    On each of these issues, I'm going to be listening to everybody around this table. And I'm hopeful that, with the spirit of cooperation and putting America first, we can be in a position where, at the end of this year, we will be able to look back and say we're that much better off than we were when we started the year.

  • SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, Majority Leader:

    Our job here in the Senate is to see if we can make some progress for the country right now. And one of the reasons we — the president and I and president in the meeting we had this morning spent our time largely talking about the things we agree on, is that we don't want to use the fact that there's an election coming up as a rationale for not making some progress.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner had taken sharp issue with President Obama earlier in the day, but after the meeting, his office released a statement saying both sides had discussed opportunities to work together.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    To talk about today's meeting and the mind-sets of the leaders in both branches, we are joined by "NewsHour" political director Domenico Montanaro, who is at the White House tonight, and "NewsHour" political editor Lisa Desjardins, who is at the Capitol.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Domenico, let's start with you.

    What are folks at the White House saying their priorities were for this meeting and for going forward?

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Well, they're really hoping that they can find some areas of common ground. They said President Obama brought up some things, like you mentioned. Cyber-security was one thing that was on the table. Tax reform is always something that kind of gets dangled that some of us are kind of skeptical of.

    We listened to Mitch McConnell talk about we don't want to let an upcoming election get in the way. We just got through an election, but yet they're already talking about another election coming up. They do think there are some things they can work on, but, remember, the White House has already issued five veto threats on some items, the Keystone pipeline, an item in the Affordable Care Act that they find to be unacceptable.

    And they say that's Republicans not wanting to compromise, because they — they pushed through some of these what they called recycled, old pieces of legislation that they knew the president would be against.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Lisa, it's interesting on Capitol Hill to hear John Boehner so tough earlier in the day and so relatively mild later in the day. Did they actually come away from that meeting having accomplished something, from their point of view?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    That was fascinating to listen to. Just a few hours made quite a difference in tone.

    And, yes, Gwen, in fact, talking to Republicans who were in that meeting today, I heard and noticed a couple of similar phrases from them, neutral to warm, things like positive signs, there were lots of discussions, and a lot of opportunities for compromise. Those are the phrases Republicans are using here.

    And I also have to say, I have noticed that the tone here on Capitol Hill has shifted dramatically. Things are not as sharp. There's not that sense of bitterness that there was just after the midterm elections. So call it a midterm mildness, but it seems like the president is capitalizing on this moment — or trying to — to bring these two forces together.

    All that said, of course, the politics have not changed, even if the tone has. The truth is that, on major issues, like even tax reform and, of course, immigration, other major matters facing this country, the divide may have even increased. In talking the people about what happens next, you can see Republicans sense that voters have moved Congress in more of a direction toward the right and the divide technically may have gotten larger.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Domenico, we have seen this — we have been here before, where they sound mild when they meet first face to face, and then they go farther and farther apart.

    Was there anything specific that they walked away from today after this meeting that they could point to and say, well, yes, we are doing something?

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Well, it's interesting.

    Yes. I think on authorization for use of military force, which isn't something I think people were thinking about coming in, but when you talk about the politics and just having come out of a midterm, this is something that White House officials said tonight that, look, members of Congress didn't want to touch this with a 10-foot pole during the election, but now they seem more willing to take this on.

    This is to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria. But they said, the White House, that President Obama doesn't want to have to jump in on this alone, and, you know, just kind of give legislation to Congress on this. He wants someone like Mitch McConnell or Bob Corker, who is a Republican senator from Tennessee, to help craft some of this legislation on AUMF, on the authorization for use of military force.

    But, as Lisa says, the politics really have not changed. That's a very minor thing. And when you think about immigration in particular, that's going to be a real sticking point.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, Lisa, speaking of sticking points, on many of these things, it sounds like they are going to work together, but we know there is one big issue where there is potentially a major impasse that could not only derail that issue, but a lot else along with it.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    That's right.

    By February 27, Congress needs to approve a new budget for the Department of Homeland Security. And we have been sort of picking at this as a theme throughout this entire segment. The issue there is immigration. Congress — Republican congressmen last session wanted to change the president's policy on immigration. He did this through executive order, so that's very difficult for Congress to change.

    So they held it — they have changed the Homeland Security budget, so that it would only go until February 27. Now Congress has to figure out how to fund that. And, tomorrow, the House will vote on a special Homeland Security funding bill.

    Gwen and Judy, it's particularly important to watch, because Republicans will pass several amendments that will try and undercut the president's immigration policies, especially allowing some undocumented people to stay in the country, including those so-called DREAM Act kids or kids who are part of DACA, the Deferred Action for Children.

    The Republicans will vote against that tomorrow. That will likely passes the House. Here's the problem, everyone. The House passes its budget. It gets to the Senate. Talking to Senate leaders today, it's not clear that it has 60 votes. And we could be back to the issue of, how do we fund a major agency of government with just a month-and-a-half to go?

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Domenico, one more question for you. You mentioned early on at the top of this that the president has been vetoing or at least threatening to veto a lot of things. Is that part of the White House strategy, just to be a little in-your-face with members of Congress?

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Well, look, I think a lot of negotiations, they will say, have started with something like a veto threat, where you say, this is my position on this, and we're not going to budge on this.

    They're not going to roll back their executive actions on immigration, and the bet that they're making here is that Republicans don't want to shut down the Department of Homeland Security, which is what would happen February 27 if it's not funded.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Domenico Montanaro and Lisa Desjardins on the scene for us tonight on Capitol Hill and the White House, thank you so much.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO:

    Thank you.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Thank you.

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