By Charles Babington
CAMBRIDGE, Md. —
President Barack Obama said Friday that top priorities for Congress should be increasing the minimum wage and overhauling the immigration system, while acknowledging that election-year politics could complicate the effort.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden delivered pep talks to a House Democratic retreat on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, less than nine months before the lawmakers face re-election amid widespread voter disapproval of Congress.
The president and vice president called for sweeping changes to immigration laws, but Republican leaders have all but ruled out passage before the midterm election. Obama urged the Democratic crowd to keep working on the issue and insisted some Republicans want a deal.
“But they’re worried, and they’re scared about the political blowback. And look, everybody here is an elected official and we can all appreciate the maneuverings that take place, particularly in an election year,” Obama said.
While Democrats are largely united on immigration, there are sharp divisions between the White House and some lawmakers over trade. Obama made no mention in his public remarks of his request for Congress to grant him fast-track authority to move trade agreements with Asia and Europe. Democratic leaders have staunchly opposed that step.
Biden did address the Democratic opposition during a private question-and-answer session with lawmakers. The vice president’s office said Biden made the case for why trade negotiations serve U.S. economic and strategic interests. But a Democratic aide said Biden also acknowledged that lawmakers don’t plan to act now to give Obama the leeway he’s seeking.
The Democrats’ hard line comes just days before trade issues dominate a North American Leaders Summit in Mexico, where Obama will meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. A key topic will be progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, which are designed to expand trade among 12 countries in the Americas, the Pacific and Asia. The agreement has been seen as a vehicle to update the 20-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement among the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Biden was more partisan than the president in his public remarks, suggesting the Republican Party is too fractured to be effective.
He urged the Democrats not to focus “on the few things we do have problems with” and argued that Americans back them on issues including raising the minimum wage, expanding early childhood education, immigration reform, gay marriage and even health care.
“Let’s go out and make every single effort not just to defend but to aggressively push our agenda,” Biden said. “They are with us.”
And for any lawmaker who might not be feeling so confident, Biden said, “I can imagine our prospects being viewed by the press and everyone else as being a whole hell of a lot brighter by the time we turn to September than now.”
The president also thanked lawmakers for banding together to increase the government’s debt with no strings attached in legislation that Congress approved this week and for standing behind his health care law through its troubled rollout.
“I just want to say thank you for all of you hanging in there tough on an issue that I think 10 years from now, five years from now, we’re going to look back and say this was a monumental achievement that could not have happened had it not been for this caucus,” Obama said.
Obama’s and Biden’s remarks came in brief appearances before Democrats before reporters were ushered out of the room as they took questions. The large ballroom was not full, with some empty tables, as some lawmakers apparently skipped the retreat because of the East Coast snowstorm.