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Obama to Senate Dems: "We still have to lead"

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama implored Senate Democrats yesterday to stay aggressive in pushing their agenda despite the loss of one vital seat, saying: "We still have to lead."

Obama sharpened his challenge to Republicans in an attempt to put an emboldened opposition on the spot. Obama warned:

"We'll call them out when they say they want to work with us, and we extend a hand and get a fist in return."

Speaking to his party's senators at their strategy conference, Obama reminded Democrats they still hold a 59-41 majority, one shy of the 60 needed to overcome Republican filibuster delay tactics.

Democrats lost a "super majority" when Republican Scott Brown won in a special election upset in Massachusetts.

Obama said that for Democrats searching for a lesson from that election, "The answer is not to do nothing." "The American people are out of patience with business as usual," he said.

Obama urged Democrats to push legislation that will help people get jobs. He encouraged them to avoid the temptation to "tread lightly, keep your head down and play it safe."

The session came as part of broad outreach by Obama - to his party, his political opposition and a disgruntled public - as he seeks to get his agenda back on track.

Yet Obama used particularly harsh language toward Republicans, part of a deliberate strategy to be more combative with the opposition party. He chided Republican senators for, in his view, trying to gum up the works and routinely using the filibuster delaying tactic.

To Democrats seated in front of him at their conference at Washington's Newseum, Obama said: "We've got to finish the job on health care. We've got to finish the job on financial regulatory reform. We've got to finish the job, even though it's hard."

Obama and fellow Democrats are coping with an atmosphere of deep dissatisfaction as they head toward midterm elections this year.

The party is trying to prevent big losses in the House and Senate.

The first senators to pose questions to Obama, as TV cameras rolled, face difficult campaigns this year. Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Michael Bennet of Colorado expect strong GOP opponents in November.

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who switched from the Republican Party last year, is being challenged for the Democratic nomination in his state.Other speakers - Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Barbara Boxer of California - also face potentially stiff Republican challenges this fall, though Obama easily carried their states in 2008.

Obama listened patiently to their remarks and called them by their first names.

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