Obama holds rare meeting with top Republican congressmen

WASHINGTON • United States President Barack Obama has held a rare meeting with the top Republicans in Congress to assess opportunities for compromise during his final year in office, even as the two sides continued partisan sniping that could undermine the prospect of serious legislative progress.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Mr Obama met over lunch on Tuesday in their first extended interaction since Mr Ryan ascended to power last year in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

The private lunch followed an Oval Office meeting that also included Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader.

White House officials said the President expressed optimism in the two meetings that the Republican-controlled Congress would work with the administration to address five key goals: the financial crisis in Puerto Rico, ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, providing money for an initiative to fight cancer, confronting a resurgence of heroin addiction and overhauling the nation's criminal justice system.

"Hopefully, we're going to find willing partners on Capitol Hill to advance those measures," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday.

But Mr McConnell seemed less optimistic after leaving the White House. Calling the discussion wide-ranging, he nonetheless said that he had cautioned Mr Obama against pushing for approval of the TPP because of opposition among a number of the presidential candidates as well as lawmakers.

Mr McConnell also said that Republicans were continuing to discuss ways that Puerto Rico could restructure its finances, but that he warned the President against a taxpayer-financed government bailout of the nation.

"No solution to the Puerto Rico problem that involves the use of US taxpayer dollars is going to be passing in this Congress," he said.

In a statement about Tuesday's meeting, Mr Ryan's office said he had "in particular, expressed hope that progress can be made to reform our criminal justice and mental health systems".

While the discussion had been expected to focus in part on criminal justice issues, the recent declaration of the Zika virus as a global emergency catapulted health issues to the top of the agenda.

The Republican leaders raised with Mr Obama the need to aggressively confront the spread of the virus.

But Mr McConnell was quick to criticise the Obama administration's handling of the Ebola crisis.

"We need to get out in front of the Zika virus," he said at a news conference in the Capitol, "and make sure that we don't end up having the kind of feeling across the country that we are sort of reacting too late like we did on Ebola."

Asked whether the President was eager to use the idea of Republican obstructionism as a political issue during the coming elections, Mr Earnest said Mr Obama's rivals could avoid that problem by simply agreeing to pass the President's proposals.

"Prove us wrong. Prove us wrong," he said. "Do it. Just do the five things then. Take that argument off the table."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 04, 2016, with the headline 'Obama holds rare meeting with top Republican congressmen'. Print Edition | Subscribe