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Obama asks Republicans to work as team but differences emerge

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday sought to develop a better working relationship for the year with leaders of the new Republican-led Congress but partisan differences immediately reared their head.

Obama, who has been criticized by both Republicans and Democrats for not developing closer relationships with lawmakers, brought in 16 congressional leaders to the White House to take stock of what is possible this year now that both houses of Congress are led by Republicans.

There was no sign of any major breakthrough but Obama did pledge to work with both parties on the language of an authorization of military force for the U.S. campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

The top two Republicans, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, came to the meeting in the strongest position yet since Obama took power in 2009, with Republicans in firm control of Congress.

Obama, however, enters the new year feeling like he is in a stronger political position due to improved economic growth.

Despite a Republican rout in November mid-term elections, Obama has seen a slight rebound in his job approval numbers, and he and his aides feel he has six to nine months to get major priorities done before the country turns its attention to the campaign to replace him in 2016.

In his opening remarks to the congressional leaders, Obama mentioned cybersecurity, trade and tax reform as three areas where agreement might be found.

“We’re in a position to make sure that 2015 is an even stronger year. And relative to our competitors, we are holding much better cards. The key now is for us to work as a team to make sure whether we build on this progress,” Obama said.

Boehner, however, raised the prospect of constructing the long-stalled Keystone XL pipeline. Obama has pledged to veto legislation that would require him to approve construction of the Canada-to-Texas pipeline.

“(Boehner) spoke about the House-passed bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline currently advancing through the Senate, and urged the president to sign it when it reaches his desk,” a statement from the speaker’s office said.

Boehner also made clear the House would push ahead with a funding bill for the Homeland Security Department that would cut funds for use in carrying out Obama’s executive action late last year to relax U.S. policy toward illegal immigrants.

“The speaker reminded the president that he himself had stated publicly many times in the past that he did not have the power to rewrite immigration law through executive action,” the statement said.

Boehner urged Obama to send to Capitol Hill a new authorization for use of military force to provide a legal framework to U.S. military efforts against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

Obama has issued five veto threats thus far against Republican-promoted legislation, a sign that he will refuse to go along with bills that he strongly opposes.

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