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Congressional leaders from both parties put on their happy faces after Tuesdays meeting at the White House, but nobody could point to any bipartisan progress made toward advancing Democrats priority issues.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) called the nearly two-hour meeting productive. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters to expect President Barack Obama to issue an executive order "soon" to create a fiscal commission aimed at reining in spending.
But GOP leaders exiting the meeting gave no sign that they are prepared to sign on to a bipartisan jobs bill, support Obamas call for a debt commission or help jump-start health care reform.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said lawmakers had a good meeting with Obama and pointed to potential areas of agreement with the administration: support for nuclear power, offshore drilling, clean coal technology and action on pending trade agreements.
But McConnell noticeably avoided endorsing any of Obamas key initiatives. He said the Senate jobs package being crafted by Finance Committee members which both chambers are looking to for movement on the issue is not ready yet, and most of his members have yet to see it.
It is hard to predict where there is agreement in the jobs bill, McConnell said. This is a package that is kind of a work in progress. We want to make sure its not just another stimulus bill that will not create any jobs. So its just too early to tell. Still, McConnell added: Theres a chance the Senate could get there with a small package.
Neither McConnell nor House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) committed to appointing any members to Obamas proposed debt commission. Instead, they said they want to see details of any such proposal first, according to a GOP source who was in the meeting.
There were also warning signs that Democrats still arent on the same page with each other on a jobs bill. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told the group that she has yet to talk to any small-business owners who would use the $5,000 jobs tax credit being pitched by Obama, said the GOP source. Hoyer later told reporters he saw potential agreement on the matter, however.
In a press briefing after the meeting, Obama said that it may be more realistic for Congress to move quickly on a pared-down jobs bill.
It may be that the first package builds some trust and confidence that Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill can work together, and then we move on to the next aspect of the package and so forth. It may take a series of incremental steps, he said.
Both McConnell and Boehner restated to reporters what has been their partys response to Democratic efforts to advance health care reform: start over.
Its going to be very difficult to have a bipartisan conversation with regard to a 2,700-page health care bill that the Democratic majority in the House and the Democratic majority in the Senate cant pass. So why are we going to talk about a bill they cant pass? said Boehner.
Obama later said that he isnt wed to any specific health care bills in the House or Senate. Instead, he said he is open to any ideas that promote the core goals of controlling costs, addressing insurance abuses and making insurance affordable. But he warned Republicans not to take his openness for granted.
What I wont do ... is another year of partisan wrangling around these issues; another six or eight months or nine months' worth of hearings in every single committee in the House and Senate where theres a lot of posturing, Obama said.
The president also dismissed McConnells examples of bipartisanship when the Minority Leader noted he and Obama both support offshore drilling and clean coal technology.
Well of course he likes that. Thats part of the Republican agenda for energy, Obama said. Bipartisanship cant be that I agree to all the things that they believe in or want, and that they agree to none of the things I believe in or want Im willing to move off some of the preferences of my party in order to meet them halfway.
Obama will meet with lawmakers from both parties again on Feb. 25, when he hosts a health care summit aimed at breaking the partisan logjam on health care reform.
My hope is that this doesnt end up being political theater ... I want a substantive discussion, said the president. Lets establish some common facts. Lets establish what the issues are, what the problems are, and lets test out in front of the American people what ideas work and what ideas dont.