By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama met with a frequent critic, House Speaker Paul Ryan, on Tuesday, as the political leaders searched for areas where they may be able to overcome partisan divisions.
The Oval Office discussion was the Democratic president’s first formal face-to-face meeting with Ryan since the Wisconsin congressman took over the top post in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives in October. Following the meeting, the two politicians ate lunch together in the White House.
The session marked a rare public detente between the politicians, who have repeatedly clashed over issues such as gun control, immigration reform and energy policy. The get-together in the Oval Office also included the Republican-controlled Senate’s majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
While the leaders said they hoped to find common ground, there were already signs on Tuesday that compromise might be elusive.
During the meeting Obama urged actions in areas where Republicans had signaled some support, including ratifying the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, providing tools to help address Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis, and the administration’s push to advance cancer treatment.
McConnell told reporters after the meeting that he had “some problems” with the Trans-Pacific trade pact and he thought it should not be pursued before the November U.S. presidential election.
Ryan also raised concerns about the trade deal and the administration’s implementation of the new Visa Waiver program, his office said in a statement.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said after the meeting that the administration does not have a specific timeline for Congress to act on the trade agreement, but lawmakers should act “quickly” once the pact is ready for consideration.
The leaders also discussed taking action to combat the epidemic of heroin addiction prescription drug abuse, reforming mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, and the fight against the Zika virus.
Obama was pleased to meet with the Republican leaders, Earnest told reporters.
Despite the divisiveness seen on the campaign trail, “it actually is possible for leading Republicans to sit down in the same office with a leading Democrat and have a conversation about the priorities of the country,” he said.
(Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Meredith Mazzilli)
Photo: U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) arrives to meet with President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the White House in Washington February 2, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst