WASHINGTON - Appealing for bipartisanship in a town where it's hard to find, President Barack Obama sat down with Democrats and Republicans yesterday to spur cooperation on job creation, deficit reduction and health care overhaul. He promised to do his part - but warned he would take Republicans to task if they don't do the same.
"The people who sent us here expect a seriousness of purpose that transcends petty politics," Obama said after the meeting, as he made a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room.
Obama's appeal was his latest effort to reach out to Republicans following GOP Sen. Scott Brown's surprise election last month to replace the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy in Massachusetts.
Brown's win deprived Democrats of the 60 votes they need to keep the Republican minority in the Senate from blocking Obama's legislative agenda, including his plan to overhaul the nation's health care system.
Obama started his remarks to reporters by engaging in a bit of wishful thinking: joking about Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell "out doing snow angels together on the South Lawn" after the meeting.
But the friendly rhetoric quickly gave way to tougher talk.
"We can't afford grandstanding at the expense of actually getting something done," Obama said. "What I won't consider is doing nothing." McConnell told reporters that "there are some areas of potential agreement" on a jobs package.
He cited Republicans' and Obama's shared interests in nuclear power, clean coal technology, offshore drilling and the completion of languishing trade deals. He cautioned, though, that most of the members of his Republican caucus hadn't yet seen the Democrats' planned jobs legislation.
Obama met earlier yesterday in the White House's Cabinet Room with the top House and Senate leaders of both parties, plus numerous aides. It was the first time in two months that GOP leaders met with him in the White House.
A jobs bill may be within reach because both parties see employment as the most pressing matter for voters.
But Republicans sounded wary of Obama's call for a bipartisan forum on health care on Feb. 25.
"It's going to be very difficult to have a bipartisan conversation with regard to a 2,700-page health care bill that the Democrat majority in the House and the Democrat majority in the Senate can't pass," said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). "It really is time to scrap the bill and start over."