Obama meets with Republicans to bridge partisan divide

By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

President Obama brought Republicans to the negotiating table on Tuesday, hoping to stem a steady deterioration in relations between the two parties that has brought business in Washington to a standstill, left the Democratic agenda in tatters and angered voters who are eager to have lawmakers address their concerns.

The two-hour session was part of a renewed drive by the White House to create legislation by consensus, regardless of party label. Obama tried the approach after he took office, but it did not take hold. After the meeting, the president paid a surprise visit to the White House press room to brief reporters.

He accused Republicans of indiscriminate obstruction that he said has created legislative gridlock, especially in the Senate, but he also called on Democratic leaders to "put aside matters of party for the good of the country."

Obama outlined issues that could bridge the divide, including job creation, health-care reform, energy and trade. But he extracted few concrete commitments from his GOP visitors.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests that the public is frustrated by the bickering and recriminations. According to the survey, 57 percent of Americans consider the loss of the Senate Democrats' filibuster-proof supermajority a "good thing," but few think Republicans should wield their new power to block bills frequently. Nearly six in 10 say that Republicans are not doing enough to forge compromise with Obama on important issues, while nearly half view the president as doing too little to overcome differences with the GOP.

On the issue of health-care reform, public attitudes about the stalled Democratic legislation remain virtually deadlocked. But nearly two-thirds of voters, or 63 percent, want Congress to keep trying to tackle the issue.

A major test of whether Obama's new strategy will yield legislative results could come when the Senate takes up a job-creation bill, which Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) had hoped to introduce last week but which was sidetracked by a snowstorm.

Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) and Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) -- senior Republicans who walked away from health-care talks last year -- have been heavily involved in drafting the legislation but are reluctant to sign on to the bill unless it attracts broad GOP support. After the White House meeting, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said there is "a chance" that Republicans would back the jobs measure, although he said his conference is "not entirely comfortable with it yet."

Later, McConnell convened GOP members of the Senate Finance Committee for an impromptu gathering, and the senators emerged expressing some support for the overall framework. But Republicans were reluctant to agree to Reid's timeline for speeding the legislation to completion by the weekend. On Tuesday evening, Reid announced that snowstorms made continued legislative action all but impossible, and put off its formal introduction and a final vote until later this month.

The proposed package is expected to cost about $85 billion and would include a payroll tax break for companies that hire new employees, extensions of a variety of expiring tax breaks, and help for small businesses seeking loans. The measure also would extend unemployment insurance and COBRA health benefits by three months and provide a temporary adjustment in Medicare payment rates to physicians to prevent a scheduled cut.

The bill being crafted would reauthorize the Highway Trust Fund for one year, provide money for Build America Bonds and extend the USA Patriot Act, which is scheduled to expire at the end of February. The package also is expected to include $1.5 billion in agriculture assistance sought by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), one of the most endangered Democrats facing reelection in November.

Obama has reached out to Republicans on health-care reform by inviting them to participate in a bipartisan summit on Feb. 25. GOP leaders have expressed wariness that the event will amount to little more than political theater and so far have not committed to attending.

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