- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2015

House and Senate Republicans came away from their joint retreat in Hershey, Pennsylvania, this weekend bracing for bitter confrontations with President Obama and skeptical that the president is willing to make deals even on the handful of policies where the executive and legislative branches could find agreement.

Republicans insisted that they could stake out common ground with Mr. Obama on trade deals, tax code reforms, infrastructure projects and cybersecurity measures, yet they repeatedly raised doubts about the president’s inclination to negotiate with lawmakers and break the gridlock that has stymied Washington for six years.

“So far, what we’ve seen is the president and the White House have expressed an interest in tax reform. But when push comes to shove, he’s not really engaging with the Congress on tax reforms,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, told reporters at the retreat.

Republicans said they were given pause by the rocky start of the relationship between the White House and the 114th Congress. Mr. Obama issued five veto threats in the first two weeks of the session, even though most of those bills had bipartisan support.

Mr. Obama threw down the gauntlet for Republicans with previews of his State of the Union address Tuesday. The speech calls for $320 billion in tax increases targeting the wealthy and Wall Street, which would pay for a slew of tax credits for middle-class families and programs such as free tuition for community colleges.

The tax-and-spend plan is considered dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Congress.

SEE ALSO: Obama’s State of the Union speech to include $320B tax hike proposal

Meeting with Senate Democrats in Baltimore last week, the president reportedly declared that he was “going to play offense” with Republicans.

“We’re not feeling overly optimistic that the president has gotten the message from the last election,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

A bill out of Mr. Hensarling’s committee that would ease some Dodd-Frank banking restrictions is one of the measures that Mr. Obama vowed to veto. The bill passed the House last week by a 271-154 vote, with 29 Democrats disregarding the president’s veto threat.

It was one of several bipartisan bills that Republicans cued up to test Mr. Obama at the start of the session. The president answered the challenge by aligning himself with liberals and taking a firm stance in opposition to the Republicans’ efforts.

“I am somewhat fearful of that knee-jerk reaction from the far left,” Mr. Hensarling said.

Rep. Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, raised similar concerns about giving the president authority to fast-track trade deals, a moved backed by Republican leaders and Mr. Obama but opposed by a powerful coalition of liberal lawmakers, labor unions, teachers unions and environmentalists.

The fast-track authority would empower the president to unilaterally negotiate trade deals before bringing the agreement to Congress for an up-or-down vote, which would boost Mr. Obama’s chances of completing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation deal with Pacific Rim countries that is the centerpiece of his Asia policy.

Proponents argue that trade promotion authority improves the U.S. bargaining position by reassuring trade partners that the deals they strike won’t be altered by Congress. Opponents say it hides details of the talks from lawmakers and leads to bad agreements that ship U.S. jobs abroad and circumvent environmental laws.

Mr. Ryan pleaded for Mr. Obama to “get engaged” with his Democratic Party on trade.

“This is an area where we can find common ground with the president, but we need the president to engage,” he said. “We need the president to engage on this issue with his own party. We need him to make it a priority in the State of the Union. We need him to work with his party to help get votes.”

Meanwhile, Democrats and their union allies are pressuring Mr. Obama to use the State of the Union address to back off from trade promotion authority.

Republican leaders in both chambers said were holding out hope for the White House to enter negotiations on trade, taxes, infrastructure and other areas of potential agreement.

“I’m the guy born with the glass half full, and I believe hope springs eternal,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “The American people want us to find a way to address their concerns. That was the big message out of the election. You hear it from our members on both sides of the Capitol. I’m hopeful the president heard the same message.”

• S.A. Miller can be reached at smiller@washingtontimes.com.

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