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A marriage that goes beyond inconvenience

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, February 10, 2010; A02

Take his wife -- please.

President Obama, on the lookout for new ways to revive his agenda and break the federal government's impasse, went into the White House briefing room on Tuesday afternoon and, in Henny Youngman style, compared the political opposition to the first lady.

"Bipartisan cannot mean simply that Democrats give up everything that they believe in, find the handful of things that Republicans have been advocating for and we do those things," he told reporters at an unscheduled news conference. "That's certainly not how it works in my marriage with Michelle -- although I usually do give in, most of the time."

In that respect, the Republicans may have more in common with the first lady than the president supposes. They'll be perfectly happy to be his partner -- as long as he gives in.

The president pleaded with Republicans that "despite the political posturing that often paralyzes this town, there are many issues upon which we can and should agree." Lawmakers, by way of response, returned to Capitol Hill and resumed the posturing and the paralysis. In the last vote of Congress before shuttering for the latest snowstorm, Democrats failed to break a GOP filibuster of Obama's nominee to serve on the National Labor Relations Board. Among those joining in the filibuster was the chamber's newest member -- Massachusetts's self-proclaimed independent Republican, Sen. Scott Brown -- whose election last month started Obama's outreach to the newly empowered Republicans.

Of course, Obama's White House isn't without fault in the partisan warfare. Moments after Obama proposed "a seriousness of purpose that transcends petty politics," his spokesman, Robert Gibbs, stood on the same podium and used the spotlight to mock Sarah Palin.

Gibbs displayed for the cameras some notes he had scribbled in his palm, just as the former Alaska governor did at the Tea Party Convention over the weekend. "I wrote eggs, milk and bread, but I crossed out bread," he explained. "Then I wrote down hope and change, just in case I forgot."

There were groans in the briefing room.

The White House didn't announce Obama's appearance in the briefing room, so the first clue that something was up was when the perennially late Gibbs walked into the room two minutes early for his regular briefing. Behind him walked a familiar-looking fellow.

"We're trying to, you know, bring some change that you can believe in," said Obama, who had drawn complaints because he hadn't held a news conference since July. Surprised reporters scrambled to their seats. "It's been a while," ABC News's Ann Compton told Obama when he called on her.

It was just a brief news conference, about 30 minutes, but it brought more attention to talks Obama had held earlier in the day with congressional GOP leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, along with their Democratic counterparts, Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and Harry Reid.

"It went very well," Obama quipped. "In fact, I understand that McConnell and Reid are out doing snow angels on the South Lawn together."

More likely they pushed each other over and were struggling to get up.

Obama told the reporters how very open he is to working with the congressional minority on a jobs bill ("we should be able to come together and help business create more jobs"), and on health care, beginning with a televised summit with Republicans at the White House in two weeks.

Republican leaders were rather less sanguine as they gave an impromptu news conference in the White House driveway after their meeting.

Health care? "It really is time to scrap the bill and start over," said Boehner.

A jobs bill? "Frankly, it's not ready yet," said McConnell.

Snubbing the president's new outreach could be dangerous for the GOP. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that nearly 58 percent think Republicans aren't compromising enough, which explains why despite the tough talk, Republicans were not categorically rejecting compromise. Obama, in his news conference, warned against Republican "delay and obstruct" tactics and "obstinacy that's rooted not in substantive disagreements but in political expedience."

As if to illustrate his point, the Senate, soon after Obama's news conference, took up the nomination of Joseph Greenaway, chosen eight months ago by Obama for an appellate judgeship. The vote to confirm Greenaway: 84 to 0, proving that the eight-month delay had nothing to do with substance. Next came Obama's NLRB nominee, Craig Becker, tapped by Obama nine months ago. He got 52 votes -- a majority, but not enough to overcome a Republican filibuster.

For now, Obama will have to settle for bipartisanship on one topic only: turning out the lights. Reid suggested that senators take the day off Wednesday because of the snowstorm; McConnell readily agreed. Hoyer went them one better, announcing that the House would be closed for the rest of the week; with next week's Presidents' Day recess, they'll be off until Feb. 22.

Twelve days: That should give the president time to patch things up with the first lady.

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