New reality: Obama, GOP talk compromise, conflict
WASHINGTON (AP) – A chastened President Barack Obama signaled a new willingness to yield to Republican demands on tax cuts and jettisoned a key energy priority on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after he and fellow Democrats absorbed election losses so severe he called them a shellacking.
But he bluntly swept aside any talk of repeal of his signature health care law – right after the House Speaker-in-waiting, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, vowed Republicans would do everything they could to wipe the legislation off the books.
Boehner, a 60-year-old veteran of two decades in Congress, spoke at what amounted to his national debut as head of an incoming conservative majority that will include long-experienced lawmakers and tea party-backed political newcomers alike. He declared, “Our new majority will be the voice of the American people as they expressed it so clearly yesterday.”
Separately, the Federal Reserve announced new steps designed to further lower interest rates on loans and lead to more job creation, using powers denied mere politicians.
Taken together, the fast-paced series of events confirmed the primacy of the economy as an issue in a country with 9.6 percent unemployment, record home foreclosures and disappointingly slow growth.
In purely political terms, they also underscored a dramatic overnight power realignment after two years of grinding partisanship in Congress followed by a coarse and costly campaign.
For all the uncertainty they loosed, there was little that was ambiguous about the election results. House Republicans picked up 60 seats to capture a majority and led for five more, ending a four-year span in which Nancy Pelosi served as the first female speaker in history.
The GOP picked up at least six seats in the Senate in races reflecting both the peril and the potential of a tea party movement that emerged during the campaign. Tea party favorites were elected to Senate seats in Florida, Kentucky and Utah, but they lost in Nevada, Delaware and Colorado – at a time when Republican victories in all three would have created a 50-50 tie.
Speaking to reporters in the Capitol, Boehner said he and fellow Republicans hope the president “will continue to be willing to work with us” on the priorities of creating jobs and cutting spending.
But, he added, “We’re going to continue to renew our efforts for a smaller, less costly and more accountable government here in Washington, D.C.”
Obama struck similar themes at his own news conference a few hours later, saying he was eager to sit down with the leaders of both political parties “and figure out how we can move forward together.” He added, “It won’t be easy,” noting the parties differ profoundly in key areas.
Sounding more conciliatory than in the past, the president said he was open to compromise with Republicans on their demand for an extension of all of the Bush-era tax cuts due to expire on Jan. 1, including those that apply to upper-income earners.
“My goal is to make sure we don’t have a huge spike in taxes for middle-class families,” he said. He omitted mention of his campaign-long insistence that tax cuts be permitted to expire on upper-income families. The issue produced pre-election skirmishes in Congress and frequent disagreement during the campaign.
Obama also virtually abandoned legislation, hopelessly stalled in the Senate, that includes economic incentives to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, vehicles and other sources.
“I’m going to be looking for other means of addressing this problem,” he said. “Cap and trade was just one way of skinning the cat.”
Republicans have long slammed the bill as a “national energy tax” and jobs killer, and numerous Democrats sought to emphasize their opposition to the measure during their own re-election races.
Boehner, too, was asked about the expiring tax cuts, and he replied simply that he continues to believe they should all be extended.
Questions about the health care law elicited far more forceful answers from both men.
“I believe that the health care bill that was enacted by the current Congress will kill jobs in America, ruin the best health care system in the world and bankrupt our country. That means that we have to do everything we can to try to repeal this bill, and replace it with commonsense reforms that will bring down the cost of health insurance,” Boehner said. Earlier, he had called it a “monstrosity.”
Obama would hear none of it.
“I think we’d be misreading the election if we thought that the American people want to see us for the next two years re-litigate arguments that we had over the last two years,” he said.
He added he was willing to listen to Republican ideas for improving the system. “But I don’t think that if you ask the American people, should we stop trying to close the doughnut hole that will help senior citizens get prescription drugs, should we go back to a situation where people with pre-existing conditions can’t get health insurance, should we allow insurance companies to drop your coverage when you get sick, even though you had been paying premiums. …”
Obama attributed the Democrats’ election defeat to a feeling on the part of many voters that the economic recovery is too slow. So did House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. The first woman to lead the House will have to give up the gavel after only four years.
“Nine and a half percent unemployment is a very eclipsing event,” Pelosi said in an interview with ABC’s “World News.”
A frequent target of Republican attack ads, Pelosi said she has “no regrets” about pursuing the Democrats’ ambitious agenda and has made no decisions about her political future.
“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,” said Pelosi. “But today isn’t that day.”
Ongoing concern over the economy prompted the Federal Reserve to announce it intends to buy $600 billion in Treasury bonds through the middle of next year, on top of an estimated $250 billion to $300 billion already planned.
The hope is the move will drive down interest rates on mortgages and other debt, and as a result create more consumer spending and, in turn, job creation.
On the morning after the election, there was little overt talk of the next election, now two years distant.
But it was clearly on the minds of some.
“Our friends on the other side can change now and work with us to address the issues that are important to the American people that we all understood, or further change obviously can happen in 2012,” said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, leader of a larger minority, but a minority still.
Another Republican, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, worried aloud that voters could turn against the GOP next time.
“Let us be under no illusion – many of those who cast their vote for Republicans yesterday have their share of doubts about whether we are up to the task of governing; about whether congressional Republicans have learned our lesson,” he said.