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Party leaders set battle lines for November election

By Tom Cohen, CNN
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Politicians: Need to get home, leave DC
  • NEW: Sources say Democratic leaders urge Obama to step up campaigning
  • Democrats tout congressional record, highlight choice for voters
  • Boehner calls for reforms in Congress
  • Gibbs, Democrats say Republican strategy was obstruction

Washington (CNN) -- With Congress adjourned until after the November elections, the campaign season accelerated Thursday as top Democrats accused Republicans of a strategy of obstruction while the House GOP leader called for an overhaul of how the chamber works.

President Barack Obama met with Democratic leaders from both chambers before they left Washington for the election fray back home. Democratic sources said the party's congressional leaders pushed Obama to be more aggressive in helping them campaign in the final weeks before the November 2 vote.

Their message after the talks with Obama focused on legislative accomplishments on behalf of working-class Americans despite the relentless Republican opposition.

"The Republican strategy has been and continues to this day to create gridlock and failure," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, told a news conference. The strategy failed, Hoyer said, because Congress passed major bills including health care reform and Wall Street reform, "but they gave the impression to the American people that we couldn't work together."

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, laid out a sweeping reform agenda for Congress, promising to make spending increases much tougher if he becomes House speaker in January.

Republicans are pushing for a repeat of 1994, when a conservative-driven wave helped them seize control of the House from Democrats two years after Bill Clinton became president. This year, they are criticizing Obama and Democrats for continuing to increase the federal deficit and failing to bring down high unemployment in the slow recover from the economic recession.

Democratic leaders have said they expect to lose some seats in the November voting, but they insist their part will retain majorities in both chambers of Congress.

Addressing the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Boehner promised to help usher in a new era of bipartisan cooperation, but also pledged to change House rules in a way that would strongly favor the agenda being pushed by fiscal conservatives, including the Tea Party movement.

In particular, he proposed doing away with the "comprehensive" spending bills that have been a hallmark of the congressional appropriations process for decades. Those measures authorize spending for multiple departments and agencies.

"Let's break them up to encourage scrutiny and make spending cuts easier," Boehner said, later adding that House members "shouldn't have to vote for big increases at the Commerce Department just because they support NASA. Each department and agency should justify itself each year to the full House and Senate, and be judged on its own."

Boehner also proposed a new "cut as you go" rule that would require any bill containing a new government program to also include steps to reduce the same amount of spending elsewhere.

Asked about the hostile political climate in Congress, Boehner said: "There's no question that there's a lot of scar tissue that's been built up on both sides of the aisle, and both parties are to blame."

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs agreed that Congress needs fixing, but he cited a different cause of the problem -- gridlock due to Republican intransigence.

"We've got judges that have sat around for 240 days, that passed out of a committee unanimously," Gibbs told reporters, later adding: "It's not the way that place should run. It's not what the American people want to see. But it's the way Republicans have acted on Capitol Hill for the entirety of the president's time here in Washington."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Boehner's call for reforms was intended to shift focus away from what she described as a dearth of Republican ideas.

"It's no wonder that Mr. Boehner wants to talk about process," Pelosi said. "They have no substantive issues to take to the American people. We'd rather talk about progress than process."

Obama already appears to be in campaign mode, traveling to four states this week to hold town hall-style meetings and address Democratic rallies.

At a meeting Tuesday in New Mexico, Obama faced a range of questions but no matter the topic -- education, small businesses, military veterans, clean energy -- he repeatedly reminded listeners that the upcoming congressional elections would be their time to decide.

"I hope everybody is going to pay attention and do their homework and find out about candidates," Obama said at the end of the hour-long event. "And I think what you'll find is, is that when you're making choices for governor and you're making choices for Senate and Congress, that these choices are going to mean something."

He encouraged people to ask themselves, "What direction do I want this country to go in?"

"Do I want to invest in our people, in our middle class and making it stronger, and our infrastructure and our education system and clean energy -- is that one vision," Obama said, "or are we just going to keep on doing the same things that got us into this mess in the first place?"

That's the kind of messaging that congressional Democrats want from Obama, according to multiple senior Democratic sources who spoke to CNN after party leaders met with the president.

Pelosi told Obama they wanted him to continue to make the Democratic case on jobs and the economy, and to contrast it with the Republican positions, the sources said.

Obama said he would, and signaled there would be more campaign events than the handful already announced, according to the sources.

CNN's Dana Bash, Deirdre Walsh and Alan Silverleib contributed to this story.