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Obama Chief Of Staff: We're Willing To Hear Ideas From Everyone


The president told Americans yesterday, I hear you. The Republican leaders of Congress write in today's Wall Street Journal, now we can get Congress going. So how much of Speaker Boehner and Republican Senate leader McConnell's agenda might Pres. Obama go along with? Well, we're going to ask his Chief of Staff, Denis McDonough, who joins us from the White House. Welcome to the program.

DENIS MCDONOUGH: Thank you for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: And first, generally, does Pres. Obama see in this week's results a rejection of his policies that will require him to adapt those policies to new realities in Congress?

MCDONOUGH: I think what people heard him say in the press conference yesterday afternoon is that what he sees in this is a recognition that the American people are very frustrated with a broken Washington and that the American people expect Washington to get some results and get things done. And that's what their president is going to do with the new Republican leaders and with Democrats and he'll be getting a group of them together tomorrow afternoon here at the White House to begin that work. But the other thing is as it relates to the agenda. The agenda the president has been focused on and will continue to focus on is making sure that as Washington works, it's working on behalf of middle class families and getting things done that will grow this economy, increase wages and ensure that people have access to opportunity.

SIEGEL: On immigration, the president put off until after the election assuring an executive order that could sharply reduce deportations. Sen. McConnell and Speaker Boehner say that taking executive action now as opposed to working with Congress on a new law would poison the well. Why not test Republican goodwill on immigration rather than risk going straight to gridlock in January? Why not hold back on executive action?

MCDONOUGH: Boy, it would be a real shame to go straight to gridlock. You're absolutely right about that and what the president has been doing with the Speaker over course of the last year and a half is trying to work with him to get the same bipartisan immigration reform bill that passed the Senate overwhelmingly with Democrats and Republicans to be taken up in the House. So rather than an executive action being a question of either-or, the president sees this as both-and. Which is to say if Congress doesn't act legislatively, as they have not been willing to - not withstanding the bipartisan action in the Senate - then we should go ahead and do an executive action and as soon as then Congress takes up and passes new legislation, the executive action will go away.

SIEGEL: In their op-ed today in The Wall Street Journal, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner described some of what they hope to accomplish and one item is move on the Keystone XL pipeline. The White House has said it would approve the pipeline "only if the project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." That's a quote.

Hasn't there been enough time to study and come up with an answer to that question? And if so is of the president open to the idea of approving the pipeline?

MCDONOUGH: What the president said yesterday in his press conference is that there is an independent review of this going on over at the State Department and importantly this is now the subject before a Nebraska court, where they have to resolve some issues around the citing or potential citing of that pipeline so the president said he's not going to front run that and he's going to let that process play out.

SIEGEL: McConnell and Boehner write in The Journal, redefine a full-time work week as 40 hours rather than 30 hours as it's defined in the Affordable Care Act. They call that figure a barrier to workers getting more hours and better pay. Employers find it too costly to hire, say, a 35-hour a week worker.

Is that idea a nonstarter at the White House?

MCDONOUGH: Analytically, I think it's important to take a step back and look at what's happening as it relates to this work week and you know, we're taking a hard look at it and if we see some challenges that could be addressed - and the president's said very clearly that he's open to ideas; it doesn't matter if they're Republican, Democrat or otherwise.

SIEGEL: Mr. McDonough, I don't hear you saying that the definition of a full-time worker at 30 hours a week in the Affordable Care Act is carved in stone.

MCDONOUGH: What the president has said all along, Robert, is that we're willing to hear ideas from up Republicans, from Democrats and otherwise. Anything that will make a law better, we should do that. There's never been a law passed in the United States - or frankly, I'm not sure anywhere - but surely not in the United States that's set in stone. We've ought to maybe go on back to the initial 10 Commandments, but since then I think when bills are passed and made into law, we are always trying to improve them and make them better.

SIEGEL: How do you expect tomorrow's meeting to go with congressional leaders by the way? Is it going to be a reset? Is it late enough in the day to have bourbon served? What do you look forward to happening?

MCDONOUGH: I do get the sense that there's going to be more and more bourbon served around Washington, including here in the White House - but I'm not much of a bourbon guy - but I think the event tomorrow, judging from the very constructive comments from Leader McConnell and the speaker today and obviously from the president yesterday afternoon and then the conversations that he, the president, has been having and many of us have been having with our colleagues up on the Hill, I think it should be a productive session.

SIEGEL: Denis McDonough, White House Chief of Staff, thank you very much for talking with us.

MCDONOUGH: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.