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United States & World

Obama, GOP Speak Of Cooperation In New Congress

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We heard conciliatory words today from both President Obama and Senator Mitch McConnell who will become the Senate majority leader. The president spoke this afternoon at the White House and said he was committed to finding common ground even though there will be disagreements.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Congress will pass some bills I cannot sign. I'm pretty sure I'll take some actions that some in Congress will not like. That's natural. That's how our democracy works. But we can surely find ways to work together on issues where there's broad agreement among the American people.

BLOCK: For more on how the GOP-led Congress might work with the president, we're joined now by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. And Mara, were you hearing olive branches extended today from both sides?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Absolutely, and notwithstanding what you just heard from Reince Priebus. I mean Mitch McConnell gave a press conference right before President Obama, and Mitch McConnell is the man who famously said his number-one priority was making the president into a one-term president.

BLOCK: Yes.

LIASSON: But he did reach out. He said - after an election that diminished the president, he spent an entire press conference enlarging the president and lifting him up and saying the president is the only Democrat who counts. He's a very important player. The veto pen is a big thing. Part of that was trying to tamp down the expectations of his own caucus, but basically, he presented himself as someone who could cut deals with the president. He said Ronald Reagan did it with an opposition Congress. Bill Clinton did it. And you'll hear him, right now, talk about how there are areas they could work together.

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SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: When the American people choose divided government, I don't think it means they don't want us to do anything. I think it means they want us to look for areas of agreement.

LIASSON: And they will - even the president said the good news is that now Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are from the same party, as if he was welcoming divided government, which historically has been pretty productive.

BLOCK: So what might conceivably be some areas of agreement between Democrats and Republicans over the next two years?

LIASSON: Both McConnell and the president mentioned tax reform - corporate tax reform, where the president would like to add some infrastructure, investment in part of a tax reform deal - they both mentioned trade. The president would like to something on education. But tax reform and trade with a little infrastructure thrown in would be a start.

BLOCK: You talked earlier about Mitch McConnell being somebody who knows how to cut a deal. This is his reputation, right? I mean he is known as a dealmaker in the Senate, and specifically able to work with the vice president, Joe Biden.

LIASSON: He mentioned the deal that he made with Joe Biden to solve the fiscal cliff negotiations. He's very creative. He is a partisan, and when he was the minority leader he understood his role was to block everything the president wanted to do. But he's a real institutionalist, and this is his lifelong dream - to be the majority leader. He was asked a lot about all the senators - Republican senators who want to be president - and the old joke is that every senator gets up every morning, looks in the mirror and sees a president. Mitch McConnell is the exception to that rule. He does not want to be President. He wants to be Majority Leader. I think he wants to be a significant Majority Leader.

He talked a lot about how the Senate hasn't been getting anything done. It doesn't pass anything. Now it will. So I think he wants to be a consequential majority leader. The president has two years left. He's thinking a lot about his legacy, and it all remains to be seen. We might only get more clarifying gridlock, but gridlock all the same. Or maybe we will get a bunch of deals on some issues.

BLOCK: All right. Well, lest we think this is all sweetness and light, let's remember that we heard some pretty strong language just now from the RNC chairman, Reince Priebus, with pretty clear divisions on repealing Obamacare, on immigration with the administration and tensions within the Republican Party itself on these same issues.

LIASSON: I think you're going to see those tensions played out right in the Senate. Mitch McConnell has a group of senators who want to run for president. That means they're going to be appealing to the more conservative Republican primary electorate. He also has a bunch of senators who are up for reelection in 2016 in blue states. They're going to be looking for some compromises. And immigration, you heard Reince Priebus talk about. That is the prime example. A lot of Republican senators who just got elected ran on anti-amnesty platforms, and I think that's going to make it much harder for the Senate and the House to pass immigration reform.

BLOCK: NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.