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Obama Urges Bipartisan Work On Jobs Bill

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And Im Michele Norris.

It was billed as a bipartisan sit-down on both parties' number one priority -jobs. President Obama met today with top Republicans and Democrats in Congress. But in these politically divisive times there may be little agreement even on a subject like jobs, beyond the fact that the U.S. needs to create more of them and fast. And while the economy was the subject of the day, the president was clearly thinking about partisanship and his stalled agenda.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: The leadership meeting at the White House was a test of bipartisanship, or more precisely, the lack of it. The latest NBC Wall Street Journal poll shows just how poorly Americans think Washington is doing. Only 28 percent think the federal government is working, 70 percent think its not. With that in mind, the president opened the White House meeting this way.

President BARACK OBAMA: I think its fair to say that the American people are frustrated with the lack of progress on some key issues. And although the parties are not going to agree on every single item, there should be some areas where we can agree, and we can get some things done even as we have vigorous debates on some of those issues that we dont agree on.

LIASSON: Now that the Democrats have lost their supermajority in the Senate, President Obama has to get Republican cooperation or else convince the public that the Republicans are being obstructionists, blocking everything just for political advantage. After the meeting he made a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room to make that point.

Pres. OBAMA: Bipartisanship cant be that I agree to all the things that they believe in or want and they agree to none of the things I believe and want. And thats the price of bipartisanship.

LIASSON: The president said he's waiting to see if the Republicans will meet him in the middle.

Pres. OBAMA: Im willing to move off some of the preferences of my party in order to meet them halfway, but theres got to be some give from their side as well. Thats true on health care, thats true on energy, thats true on financial reform. Thats what Im hoping gets accomplished at the summit.

LIASSON: The summit the president was referring to is a planned February 25th White House meeting on health care. And this time the president will invite in the television cameras, much as he promised during the campaign. But will Republican leaders show up? Some say they wont unless the Democrats scrap the health care bills already agreed to by both houses of Congress. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, laid out his partys position after meeting with the president.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): What we need to do is start over, go step by step on a truly bipartisan basis and try to reach an agreement. My members are open to doing that.

LIASSON: But the president seems unwilling to toss out a years worth of negotiated agreements.

Pres. OBAMA: So Im going to be starting from scratch in the sense that I will be open to any ideas that help promote these goals. What I will not do, what I dont think makes sense and I dont think the American people want to see, would be another year of partisan wrangling around these issues, another six months or eight months or nine months' worth of hearings in every single committee in the House and the Senate in which theres a lot of posturing.

LIASSON: Yesterday, House Republican leaders sent a letter to the White House demanding that the president also rule out using a parliamentary rule called reconciliation to pass a health care bill with a simple majority of 51 votes in the Senate. That too looks like a precondition the Democrats will never accept. Rising in polls and winning elections in recent weeks, Republicans have concluded they are gaining from the current gridlock in Washington and that only the majority Democrats will be punished by voters if nothing gets done. If true, that feeling gives the minority little incentive to meet the president halfway. Today Mr. Obama said he hopes the February 25th health care meeting is not just political theater, but its unclear whether in this climate it can be anything but.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.