Obama meets with Republicans to bridge partisan divide

By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 10, 2010; A01

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.

During the White House meeting, Obama said, he told House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) that his core goals of lowering health-care costs and expanding coverage for the uninsured remain non-negotiable, but the president said he will consider GOP alternatives that accomplish the same results.

Boehner said after the session that House Republicans "would like to attend the meeting. We are interested in having these bipartisan conversations and look forward to continuing conversations with the administration. We are considering it."

Obama told reporters that he would sign what he considered to be a less-than-perfect health-care bill. "I am going to be starting from scratch in the sense that I will be open to any ideas that help promote these goals," he said. "Let's get the relevant parties together. Let's put the best ideas on the table. My hope is that we can find enough overlap that we can say, 'This is the right way to move forward, even if I don't get every single thing that I want.' "

Aides said Boehner and Obama sparred over how bipartisan legislation should take shape. "You just want to kill all of these bills," Obama said, according to the notes of a Republican who attended the meeting. "No, you are wrong," Boehner replied, pledging to make an effort to reach consensus on issues such as health-care reform and energy.

Obama did express interest in Republican proposals to expand nuclear power and domestic oil and gas exploration, positions not popular among many Democrats. Boehner and McConnell also pressed Obama to move forward on trade agreements with Korea, Colombia and Panama that have been languishing.

But some participants left the session expressing skepticism about whether it was the beginning of a long-term thaw in relations. "My sense was there was not a lot of progress made," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said after he returned to the Capitol. "I heard a tip of the hat to working together."

Obama later told reporters: "I am an eternal optimist. . . . All I can do is just to keep on making the argument about what's right for the country and assume that over time people, regardless of party, regardless of their particular political positions, are going to gravitate toward the truth."

Polling director Jon Cohen and staff writers Ben Pershing and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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