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On What Issues Can Obama And The Republican Leadership Agree?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

All right, you heard Ailsa use that famous phrase about politicians wanting to get things done, which calls for a follow-up question - which things? NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has been exploring what the two parties could agree on. Hi, Tamara.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: So what are some of those areas?

KEITH: Corporate tax reform does seem possible. Transportation spending seems like an area where they could get together, the highway bill is up in the spring, so there's a deadline there to work on it - international trade, authorization of military force against the extremist group Islamic State. There could be some economic development legislation, and I think more broadly, there's an agreement between the president and the leadership in the House and Senate that they want to stop governing from crisis to crisis and cliff to cliff. I spoke with Tom Cole. He's an Oklahoma congressman, a Republican who's close to the GOP leadership in the House. He said Boehner and Mitch McConnell don't intend to waste their majority. They want something to show for it, and he said that getting something done was the real mandate in this election.

REPRESENTATIVE TOM COLE: Believe me, the American people are in a firing mood. They showed it in the last several elections, and they will keep firing people until they get a combination that they think produces for them. So I don't think incumbents can sit around and simply throw rocks at one another. If they don't get something done, a lot of them aren't going to be here after the next election.

KEITH: And he also figures that the best way to get a Republican president elected would be for Republicans in Congress to show they can govern.

INSKEEP: OK, all sounds very nice, common ground and so forth. But President Obama held a news conference yesterday, and he said very directly that he wants to move forward on immigration reform, very awkward issue for the GOP, to say the least. And the president says he's going to act on his own if Congress does not, which congressional leaders say would be a disaster for them. So what would the president do?

KEITH: Its more than that. He's going to act before the end of the year. But what the president is talking about doing is sort of a larger version of what he did with the young people known as the dreamers. He will say to some class of people, you know what? You don't have to worry about being deported. He'll give them work permits. It's not clear who this would be or how many people would be affected, but it could be something like the parents of American citizen children or people who are married to American citizens.

INSKEEP: Oh, so not everybody, but some wide class of people among the millions of people who are here without proper documents.

KEITH: Exactly, and that number that gets tossed around of people who could be affected is about 5 million, but that's not entirely clear. Here's the thing, that is going to make Republicans very, very angry, but they still have an interest in doing something about this broken immigration system. Comprehensive immigration reform probably isn't possible. But they talk about things like legislation on border security or maybe seasonal worker visas or visas for high-tech workers, so there are actually areas where they could work on this.

INSKEEP: Well, that's very interesting. So you have President Obama pushing Republicans on an issue that's awkward for them, something may or may not come of it. You also have Republicans pushing the president. We had Cory Gardner, the newly elected Republican senator from Colorado, on the program yesterday. I asked him what can you work with the president on, and he mentioned the Keystone XL pipeline - awkward for the president - changes to the Obamacare - awkward for the president again. Republicans want to push on the president a little bit here.

KEITH: Yeah, and in an op-ed this morning, in The Wall Street Journal, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner said that they are, quote, "renewing their commitment to repeal Obamacare." But once they get that out of their system, the sense is that there are some smaller things where there could be agreement on fixes and changes to the health care law.

One thing that doesn't get reported all that often is that there were actually, over the last several years, about seven bills passed with bipartisan support and signed by the president that made changes to the health care law. One thing that's getting a lot of talk now is repealing the medical devices tax. President Obama was asked about it at his press conference yesterday, and he didn't outright reject the idea. So there are a lot of ideas being discussed. None of them would actually completely undermine the law. Outside experts say that it's pretty well here to stay. A health care tracking firm called Avalere projects that by the time the next president takes office, 24 million people will have insurance through the exchanges, which makes repeal politically tough and unlikely.

INSKEEP: OK, thanks very much. That's NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith on this Thursday morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.

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