Opinion Columns & Blogs

Carl P. Leubsdorf: Back to gridlock as usual

In the two weeks since President Barack Obama and top Republican congressional leaders vowed to seek common ground following GOP election victories, that goal has remained elusive.

On issue after issue, the two sides are taking positions and threatening fights that renew the battles that have marked much of the Obama presidency.

A big reason is that, behind their promises of cooperation is a basic disagreement about the election's meaning: Republicans interpreted it as a repudiation of Obama and everything he stands for, while Democrats saw it as a vote against bipartisan gridlock and a plea to get something done.

As a result, legislative confrontations loom in at least four major cases where GOP lawmakers remain determined to keep blocking Obama's priorities: immigration, climate change, a nuclear agreement with Iran and the Affordable Care Act. And in a fifth area -- the Keystone pipeline -- it's the Republicans who want action and the president who is resisting.

Here is what's involved:

Keystone Pipeline. The conservative-dominated House GOP last week passed legislation to build the controversial project the Obama White House has stalled for several years, pending a State Department study of environmental concerns.

Politics is behind the flurry of action: House Republicans scheduled last week's vote to boost GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy in his Dec. 6 Louisiana Senate runoff against Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu.

Tuesday's Senate vote was scheduled so Landrieu could show her clout, but the measure missed the required 60 votes by one.

In any case, Obama signaled he'd probably veto it by questioning the economic benefit of a project that would mainly bring Canadian oil through the United States for overseas export. And in Louisiana, polls show Cassidy well ahead.

Immigration. Nearly 17 months after a bipartisan Senate majority passed a compromise immigration bill, the White House has gotten tired of waiting for Speaker John Boehner to fulfill repeated promises of House action. Now, Obama plans to use his executive authority to put portions into effect, allowing up to 5 million illegal entrants to remain legally in the United States.

He is proceeding despite increasingly fervent GOP warnings against unilateral action. Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell likens it to "waving a red flag in front of a bull," while Boehner vows that, if Obama acts, House Republicans will fight him "tooth and nail," something they've already been doing.

This issue is especially important to Democrats. Obama damaged himself with Hispanic leaders by delaying action last summer in a futile effort to save several embattled Democratic senators, Now, he needs to fulfill his promise to act and probably won't mind if Republicans once more oppose a top Hispanic priority.

Climate change. Last week, Obama reached a ground-breaking agreement with China on climate control, the first time the Chinese have been willing to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Republicans promptly denounced it, and some hope to amend the year-end funding bill to deny funds for carrying out this pact and the EPA's decision to curb emissions at home. That might produce an Obama veto -- and a government shutdown.

Iran nuclear agreement. Even before the U.S. concludes talks with Iran on a potentially ground-breaking agreement curbing its nuclear program, Republicans and pro-Israel Democrats are warning they might oppose it.

Obamacare. Though McConnell has backed off his campaign pledge "to pull it out root and branch," other Republicans still want to stop funding the Affordable Care Act, possibly by amending the year-end funding bill or a subsequent measure; that too could bring a presidential veto shutting down the government.

Given all this, it's hard to see where compromises can be reached, short of one side or the other abandoning its position.

Even if Obama delayed the effective date of his immigration executive orders to June 30, there is no evidence the House would act, meaning the same conflict would recur then.

The most likely compromises are in areas where legislation has not yet been written, such as tax reform. But what you see this week is probably what you're going to get for the next two years.