CAMBRIDGE, Md. (AP) — House Republican leaders challenged President Barack Obama on Thursday to override the opposition of the Senate's top Democrat and help pass trade legislation the administration favors.
"The president ought to stand up and lead on this issue," House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio said at a news conference at a two-day retreat for members of the party's rank-and-file. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the third-ranking House leader, noted that Obama said in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday night that he has a phone and a pen and will use them to implement his priorities. "The first phone call should be to Harry Reid" the Senate majority leader, he said.
Obama urged Congress Tuesday night to pass a measure that would ease approval of trade deals with European and Asian nations. The legislation would require Congress to act by a yes-or-no vote, without the ability to make any changes.
It's the type of legislation that has been used in the past under presidents of both political parties, and Republicans reacted favorably. But Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday he is opposed to the bill, which is called fast-track legislation. He advised its supporters not to seek its passage at the current time.
Many labor unions oppose legislation along those lines, as do their allies in Congress. They argue that trade deals often put American companies at a disadvantage when competing with overseas firms in countries with relatively lax workplace or environmental protections.
At the news conference, Boehner and other members of the leadership said they wanted Republicans to become an "alternative party" rather than just the "opposition party" to Obama. Immigration, health care and legislation to raise the debt limit are among the issues on the conference agenda.
The speaker sidestepped when asked whether the Republicans intend to have an alternative to what they call "Obamacare," the health care law they have voted to repeal or dismember more than 40 times. He noted the party had an alternative proposal in 2009 when the measure was under debate, and said, "that bill is still out there."
Republicans won a majority in the fall of 2010 on an anti-health care overhaul platform of "repeal and replace," but three years later, have yet to offer any comprehensive alternative. Republicans opened their meeting with a call to Obama and Democrats to pass legislation concerning four of the president's priorities that is stalled in the Senate.
In a letter to the president released Thursday, Boehner and the other members of the leadership said the measures deal with job training programs, construction of natural gas pipelines, workplace rules and money for pediatric research at the National Institutes of Health.
All would help achieve some of the priorities Obama laid out in his speech, the letter said. "Mr. President, as you reminded us all on Tuesday night, sometimes things don't come easy, but we should never give up and never quit," the letter read.
"We are confident that success in these areas will open even more avenues for success. The American people are counting on us. Let's get to work," it read. The House has passed legislation relating to each of the four areas that the leadership outlined in the letter, but all of the bills are bogged down by opposition in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The letter was released as the House Republican rank and file began a two-day retreat on the Maryland Eastern Shore. Officials said the principal areas of discussion would be immigration legislation, health care and the administration's call for a measure to clear by the end of February to raise the nation's $17 trillion debt limit.
In his State of the Union speech, Obama urged lawmakers to work with him in key areas, many of them pocketbook-related, at a time when public anxiety is growing about the income gap between rich and poor.
Obama said that if lawmakers won't work with him, he'll act on his own. Republicans say the president's ability to accomplish his agenda through executive action is limited, and cooperation will be needed if he is to achieve much of what he wants.
The two sides have quarreled fiercely during Obama's presidency. Yet with lawmakers at the beginning of an election-year session, each side is eager to be seen as striving toward cooperation rather than toward the gridlock that the public views unfavorably.
In addition to Boehner, the letter was signed by Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader; McCarthy; and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, the fourth-ranking leader.