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Republicans target health-care bill, government spending as Obama acknowledges election setback

By Anne E. Kornblut, Paul Kane and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 12:19 AM

Leaders of the new Republican majority emerged emboldened Wednesday, promising to slash the size of government and setting their sights on repealing President Obama's signature health-care overhaul.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) began to lay the groundwork for what is still a loosely defined Republican agenda, but he signaled his desire not to overreach or misinterpret the election results as giving his party a large mandate. GOP leaders agreed that their victory had more to do with what the public opposed than what they offered.

"It's pretty clear that the Obama-Pelosi agenda is being rejected by the American people," Boehner, the speaker-in-waiting, told reporters. "We're going to continue and renew our efforts for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government."

Looking exhausted despite a heavy coat of makeup, the president began to deal with the most severe blow of his political career. At a midday news conference, he said he would redouble his efforts to work with House Republicans, but he also firmly defended his policies of the past two years and suggested that his failures were more about messaging than anything else.

"Over the last two years, we've made progress. But, clearly, too many Americans haven't felt that progress yet, and they told us that yesterday," Obama said at the White House. "What yesterday also told us is that no one party will be able to dictate where we go from here."

Both sides responded to the largest Republican sweep in nearly half a century by saying all the right things: pledging to work together and to heed the will of the American people. But they offered few specifics and acknowledged that they don't share many areas of agreement.

With at least 60 seats gained, Republicans were poised to control their largest House majority since the Truman administration of the late 1940s. Their top priority, they said, is cutting the size of government.

But their ultimate target is Obama's health-care overhaul, which many new members ran on a promise to repeal. Boehner said he would move slowly, adding that it is important to "lay the groundwork before we begin to repeal this monstrosity."

With Democrats still in control of the Senate and Obama in command of the veto pen, Republicans will be hard-pressed to make good on their hopes of repeal. But Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), fresh from his victory over tea party candidate Sharron Angle (R), said he is open to "tweaking." Obama, too, expressed flexibility on some details, but said the public stands behind the new legislation.

Exit polls showed that roughly half the public wants to repeal the bill but that the other half wants to keep or expand it, setting the stage for a potential showdown.

Adjusting to his new role, Boehner appointed Republicans to a "transition committee" to examine both internal rules of the House and the agenda ahead. Republicans began a scramble for lower-level leadership posts and for committee chairs, which Boehner wants to empower.

Republicans were notably cautious in their interpretation of the election results, choosing not to claim a broad mandate.

"We make a grave mistake if we believe that tonight these results are somehow an embrace of the Republican Party," said Marco Rubio, the GOP senator-elect from Florida. "What they are is a second chance, a second chance for Republicans to be what they said they were going to be, not so long ago."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the vote was "clearly a referendum on the administration and the Democratic majority here in the Congress."

Obama saw it otherwise.

Standing before reporters at an East Room news conference, Obama said what a president is supposed to say at such moments. He called the election results "humbling." He said six times that he would "take responsibility" for various problems he had been slow to fix, including eradicating earmarks from the budget process. He acknowledged taking a "shellacking" at the polls the night before.

But Obama did not find fault with his own policies. The problem, he said, was that he had not communicated them well or enacted them quickly enough.

Asked whether he thought voters had rejected his policy choices, Obama said he did not, adding that people "are not satisfied with the outcomes."

"If right now we had 5 percent unemployment instead of 9.6 percent unemployment, then people would have more confidence in those policy choices," Obama said.

Far from announcing a major shake-up, as George W. Bush did after losing Congress in 2006, Obama suggested that he would recommit to his top priorities of energy and the economy - and not back away from the central provisions of his health-care overhaul. He pledged to work harder at his long-stated goal of finding common ground with Republicans, now a strategic necessity.

What Obama did not do was signal a major course correction, beyond the one imposed on him by the electorate. Perhaps he will not need one: There is evidence that Obama still enjoys ample backing from members of his political base. They simply did not show up to vote for the rest of his party.

Results continued to trickle in from close contests. In Florida, Alex Sink, once considered a rising star of the Democratic Party, conceded her gubernatorial bid to Republican Rick Scott. Sink was the latest woman to lose in a year that proved dismal for high-profile female candidates.

In Colorado, Sen. Michael Bennet ((D) narrowly defeated tea party candidate Ken Buck (R), restoring some confidence to Democrats that they could hold their own in a swing state. Speaking the day after Republicans won six new Senate seats, Bennet called Colorado a "very independent-minded place, and our sense of independence is very strong."

Senate returns in Alaska and Washington were still being tallied, with final outcomes days, if not weeks, away.

Nonetheless, Senate Democrats were on pace to maintain control, although with a much smaller majority of 52 or 53 seats, depending on the outcome in Washington. Party leaders conceded the new reality but pivoted to a position of demanding that Republicans engage in the legislative process more next year than in the previous two years.

"No is not the answer," Reid said. "It has to be a yes - not our yes, but a combined yes, something we worked out, a consensus yes."

After weeks of constant campaigning, House Democrats were mostly in hiding. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, issued a statement calling the election a "perfect political storm born out of the understandable frustration felt by the American people in response to high unemployment caused by the worst financial crash since the Great Depression."

He blamed record amounts of spending by outside conservative groups as well, saying the spending "turned this political storm into a Category 3 political hurricane."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), driven from power after four years as the first woman to fill that post, said she had not decided whether to relinquish her leadership role. If she steps aside, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) is the presumed Democratic House leader.

"I'll have a conversation with my caucus, I'll have a conversation with my family and pray over it, and decide how to go forward," Pelosi said Wednesday in an interview with ABC News. "But today isn't that day."

kanep@washpost.com murrays@washpost.com

Staff writers Lisa Rein in Colorado and Perry Bacon Jr. in Washington contributed to this report.

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