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Election result ends talk of further sweeping reforms

By Tom Cohen, CNN
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Obama plans talks with party leaders
  • President Obama describes an incremental approach for major issues
  • The comprehensive House energy bill is dead, Obama concedes
  • Pass things both sides agree on while working on differences, he suggests

Washington (CNN) -- One wish of many Republicans and conservative voters seems certain to come true in the aftermath of the midterm congressional elections. There won't be any more sweeping reform legislation like the 2,000-plus page health care bill for a while.

President Obama has conceded as much since Democrats lost majority control of the House and had their Senate majority narrowed this week, telling reporters that a piecemeal approach to major issues is the best way forward.

After pushing through landmark bills to reform the health care system and financial services industry, Obama and Democrats now lack the political might -- and perhaps the appetite -- for similar efforts in Congress.

"I think consensus is ... not going to be 100 percent of what anybody wants," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday. He was referring to Republican demands on major issues, but his comment also reflected a shift by Democrats necessitated by Tuesday's election results.

In particular, comprehensive energy reform, a pillar of Obama's ambitious legislative agenda, appears out of reach at least until voters decide in 2012 if he will get a second term.

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At his post-election news conference Wednesday, Obama declared the huge House energy bill that was a target of GOP wrath as officially dead.

"There are a lot of Republicans that ran against the energy bill that passed in the House last year," Obama said. "It's doubtful that you could get the votes to pass that through the House this year or next year or the year after."

Instead, he advocated an incremental approach, similar to the kind of piecemeal process that Republicans had called for in the health care debate that lasted more than a year.

"When it comes to something like energy, what we're probably going to have to do is say here are some areas where there's just too much disagreement between Democrats and Republicans, we can't get this done right now, but let's not wait," Obama said. "Let's go ahead and start making some progress on the things that we do agree on, and we can continue to have a strong and healthy debate about those areas where we don't."

So far, Republicans have shown little interest in meeting the Democrats halfway, or even part of the way, after their electoral success on Tuesday.

"The White House has a choice: They can change course, or they can double down on a vision of government that the American people have roundly rejected," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Thursday. "If they choose the former, they'll find a partner in Republicans. If they don't, we will have more disagreements ahead."

Both McConnell and Obama said they see opportunities to work together on some issues, including energy independence and extending Bush-era tax cuts.

Obama specifically expressed a willingness to negotiate on the tax cuts, and also gave ground on energy reform by opening himself to dropping the heart of the House energy bill, its cap-and-trade provision to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

The so-called "cap-and-trade" system would set a price for greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide, and allow polluters to obtain and trade credits for any emissions over a set threshold.

Traditional energy industries such as oil and coal producers oppose cap-and-trade, saying it will raise energy prices and put U.S. producers at a disadvantage. Supporters say it is the best way to start to reduce the nation's dependence on fossil fuels responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions by the United States, the world's largest emitter per capita.

"Cap-and-trade was just one way of skinning the cat; it was not the only way," Obama said. "It was a means, not an end. And I'm going to be looking for other means to address this problem."

He cited steps such as increasing development of nuclear energy, natural gas resources and the electric car industry, and previously has advocated further research on clean coal technology to make burning America's most abundant energy resource less harmful to the environment.

McConnell said Thursday that he could back developing nuclear energy and clean-coal technology, but his openness to possible agreements with the White House and Democrats didn't include the health care bill already enacted into law.

While conceding an outright repeal was unlikely with Obama as president, McConnell proposed his own incremental approach to try to render the health care bill ineffective.

"We'll also have to work, in the House, on denying funds for implementation, and, in the Senate, on votes against its most egregious provisions," McConnell said. "At the same time, we'll need to continue educating the public about the ill-effects of this bill on individuals young and old, families, and small businesses."

Or as he put it later on CNN: "You go after it piece-by-piece."

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