WASHINGTON — He didn't say yes, didn't say no.
President Barack Obama seemed determined not to tip his hand on the Keystone XL pipeline during a meeting Wednesday with House Republicans, according to Iowa and Nebraska lawmakers who were in the room.
“He talked about the upside of it, the downside of it, the over-hyped benefit versus the real benefit,” said Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb. “So clearly he's deliberating still.”
The Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline requires a presidential permit because it crosses an international border. That gives Obama the final say on whether it goes forward.
Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., has made approval of the pipeline project one of his signature issues, but the Omaha congressman left the meeting with no better sense of which way the president is leaning.
“From the president's kind of rambling, nonsensical answer, it's hard to determine,” Terry said.
Obama is making several visits to Capitol Hill this week as part of a charm offensive that included last week's dinner with select Senate Republicans — among them Sen. Mike Johanns.
When one House lawmaker asked Obama about the pipeline Wednesday, Terry said the president raised some of the same concerns expressed by environmental groups.
Terry said those included suggestions that the project won't create that many jobs and that the oil it would transport from Canada would simply be refined and shipped off to other parts of the globe.
“He did recite, almost verbatim and in order, the environmental left's objections ... so that concerns me,” Terry said.
While several lawmakers said Obama implied in his comments that a pipeline decision could be coming before long, Terry said he had hoped for a firm commitment on a timeline.
Terry said the president's reluctance to nail down that timeline heightened his fear that the process will continue to drag on or be sent back to square one.
Terry and House Republicans plan to push forward following Easter recess with legislation to force approval of the pipeline.
Lawmakers said Wednesday's discussion covered other looming issues as well, from the federal budget to immigration.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said he wanted to press Obama on what King described as the administration's disregard for current immigration laws, but the outspoken conservative didn't get the chance.
King saw hope for common ground, however, on tackling problems facing Medicare and Medicaid.
“There was some open dialogue about entitlement reform, and I think that's constructive,” King said. “It's different when you hear it from the president.”
Fortenberry said the president expressed a willingness to work with Republicans to make tough choices on those government health care programs, but it's clear he still insists on raising new tax revenues — a sticking point between the two sides.
As the meeting wrapped up, Fortenberry approached the president to talk about requirements in the new health care law that employers provide health insurance coverage for contraception.
Fortenberry has led legislative efforts to allow employers to refuse to offer such services on the basis of personal beliefs and recently re-introduced legislation to that effect.
Reviews were mixed on how much the visit would improve what have been contentious relations between House Republicans and Obama.
Terry said it's going to take more than one meeting to resolve years of built-up distrust.
Terry said that during his first two years in the House, he had three conversations with President Bill Clinton but has never talked one on one with Obama or gotten so much as a wave across the room.
“I think that really is demonstrative of the reason why there is so much distrust,” Terry said. “There's no communications beyond (House leaders). He ignores the rank and file.”
He said that he has written letters to the White House that were ignored and that he has had no visits from the president's legislative aides.
“I don't even know a name of anybody at their (legislative) staff,” Terry said. “So when you hear the negative comments from the president about us and you have zero contact with us, that's not a way you build trust. ... Maybe this is the day that changes all of that. I hope so.”
Contact the writer: 202-630-4823, email@example.com, twitter.com/MortonOWH