Critiquing an unexpectedly productive final legislative rush, President Obama on Wednesday said his “biggest disappointment” was the failure to push through a bill that would have laid out a path to citizenship for children whose parents came into the country illegally.
In a press briefing just before leaving to join his family in Hawaii for Christmas, Mr. Obama said the events of the last month prove Democrats and Republicans are not “doomed to endless gridlock,” but then proceeded to list several of his priorities where partisan battles are likely in the new year.
Mr. Obama vowed to take another shot at the so-called Dream Act even though he faces a divided Congress come January, when Republicans take over the House and expand their minority in the Senate. Mr. Obama acknowledged he may have to do more to rally popular support for the measure, which passed the House but failed in the Senate.
“At a minimum, we should be able to get the Dream Act done, so I’m going to go back at it,” Mr. Obama told reporters in the news conference called to highlight his party’s achievements during the lame-duck Congress.
Mr. Obama spoke just hours after signing the law repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays serving openly in the military and just after watching the Senate vote 71-26 to approve the START missile treaty with Russia, two policy victories that many thought would be unlikely or impossible to get through the lame-duck congressional session - particularly in light of heavy Democratic losses Nov. 2.
In the new Congress, Mr. Obama will face an enlarged and energized Republican caucus, many of whom campaigned on reversing or repealing some of his most hard-fought legislative victories, including health care reform and the economic stimulus package. A short extension of the bill funding the federal government virtually guarantees an early battle over spending and tax priorities.
“I expect we’ll have a robust debate about this when we return from the holidays, a debate that will have to answer an increasingly urgent question and that is, how do we cut spending that we don’t need, while still making investments that we do need,” Mr. Obama said.
But, he added, “if there’s any lesson to draw from these past few weeks, it’s that we are not doomed to endless gridlock. We’ve shown in the wake of the November elections that we have the capacity not only to make progress but to make progress together.”
The president said it’s “entirely legitimate” to expect the country to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S., and contended that his administration has done more on border security than any other White House in recent memory. At the same time, Mr. Obama argued, the government shouldn’t punish illegal immigrants who were only children when their parents chose to break the law.
Mr. Obama also expressed regrets over not having shepherded through a major energy bill, and said he hopes to “immediately” begin work with Republicans on the issue. But any effort in the next Congress will likely encompass something far less sweeping than Democrats’ cap-and-trade approach to carbon emissions and climate change, which died in the Senate this year.
On yet another policy front, Mr. Obama vowed to keep pushing to shutter the detention center at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - a move that has met with fierce resistance on Capitol Hill from members of both parties.
Mr. Obama had campaigned on a promise to close the facility within a year of taking office, but the prospects for that now seem dim.
But there appeared to be more victories than losses as Mr. Obama reflected on Democrats’ accomplishments during the lame-duck session of Congress, dubbing it the “most productive postelection period we’ve had in decades.”
In addition to START and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” vote, the outgoing Congress approved a tax-cut compromise struck between the president and Republicans, approved a major food safety bill, confirmed a number of long-stalled judicial nominees and, in its final hours Wednesday, reached a compromise providing more than $4 billion in health care benefits for police, firefighters and other first-responders to the Sept. 11 attacks.
“A lot of folks in this town predicted that after the midterm elections Washington would be headed for more partisanship and more gridlock. And instead, this has been a season of progress for the American people,” Mr. Obama said.
The session’s marquee act of bipartisanship came in extending all of the expiring tax cuts first passed under President George W. Bush, as Mr. Obama struck a deal with Senate Republicans to extend current rates across the board for two years along with another 13 months of jobless benefits. The agreement roiled many liberal members of Mr. Obama’s party, but on Wednesday he again defended the package as the kind of compromise needed to move forward in a time of sharp partisan division.
Mr. Obama may have presaged another battle with the rising ranks of Republican conservatives in Congress when he acknowledged that his views on federal legislation to allow gay marriage - which he has opposed in the past - may be changing.
“My feelings about this are constantly evolving. I struggle with this,” Mr. Obama said, adding that he supports, at minimum, “a strong civil union” for gay couples.
“I recognize from their perspective it is not enough. And I think this is something that we’re going to continue to debate and I personally am going to continue to wrestle with going forward.”
Despite his hopes of more across-the-aisle collaboration in the new Congress, Mr. Obama suggested there would still be quite a few fights ahead, on issues ranging from taxes to spending cuts to education and social issues.
Acknowledging that tackling immigration in the next Congress represents a tall order considering Democrats couldn’t broker a deal when they controlled all levers of government, Mr. Obama conceded that he has more work to do to “change the politics” that led Republican senators to oppose the measure.
“I’m going to engage Republicans who, I think some of them in their heart of hearts know it’s the right thing to do, but they think the politics is tough for them,” he said. “That may mean that we’ve got to change the politics, and I’ve got to spend some time talking to the American people.”