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White House, Republicans talk compromise

By Tom Cohen and Deirdre Walsh, CNN
updated 5:37 AM EST, Thu March 1, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Barack Obama meets congressional leaders for lunch
  • Republican leaders say agreement is possible on jobs and energy legislation
  • The White House cites some common ground on those issues
  • Congressional Democrats question whether progress will ensue

Washington (CNN) -- Republican leaders and the White House sent signals Wednesday of possible detente on jobs and energy legislation, but they offered few specifics and congressional Democrats questioned whether any progress would ensue.

President Barack Obama had a rare luncheon meeting with leaders of both parties in Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. They are two of his biggest adversaries in the political wrangling that has brought public scorn of congressional inaction.

"We discussed a number of areas where I believe there's common ground between the two political parties, particularly on jobs and on energy, and I'd like to think that some of the bipartisan bills that we have moved through the House will ... be taken up soon by Democrats over in the Senate," Boehner later told reporters at a news conference with McConnell.

In particular, Boehner cited what he called Obama's support for a House Republican proposal called the JOBS act, short for "Jump-starting Our Business Startups," that is comprised of six measures aimed at removing barriers to small business investment.

"The president was very optimistic about moving that bill through the House," Boehner said of the measure expected to come up for a vote next week. "Frankly, it was a very good luncheon, and I'm encouraged by the attitude and the tone that we had during the meeting."

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White House spokesman Jay Carney called the lunch meeting "cordial and constructive," and he cited proposals to help small businesses as an area of possible agreement.

"We've been very explicit about the opportunity to move forward on some aspects of" the JOBS proposal, Carney said.

Most of the JOBS act measures have already passed the House with bipartisan support.

However, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland dismissed the introduction of the proposal on Tuesday, arguing it was just repackaging by Republicans to try to show they are show they are doing something.

Democratic aides declined to give any details or readout on the White House lunch that included Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

They dined on salmon risotto.

However, one senior House Democratic aide expressed skepticism at the GOP move to reach across the aisle and circulated press clips describing the Republican JOBS bill as simply a collection of items Democrats had already offered.

With the economy finally showing signs of sustained recovery years after a crippling recession, congressional Republicans appeared to be shifting their main criticism of Obama to energy policy and rising gas prices.

When Boehner was asked at the news conference about the assessment by another Congress member that people were feeling better about the economy, he acknowledged that the economy was "a little better" but said rising energy prices were a threat.

"The president believed that there were some areas where we could find common ground and, frankly, I was encouraged by that," Boehner said of energy legislation.

McConnell said it was up to Reid, as majority leader, to bring up some of the House-passed legislation on energy and jobs and break what he called "the bottleneck to accomplishing things on a bipartisan basis."

Another issue discussed was the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada's oil sands in northern Alberta to the Gulf Coast.

Republicans blame Obama for putting off a decision on the pipeline until after the November election for political reasons, because his environmentalist supporters oppose the dirtier form of oil production and the risks of a long pipeline through ecologically sensitive regions.

Obama, however, argues it was Nebraska officials, including the Republican governor, who delayed the project by calling for an alternative route to avoid an important water source. With no alternative route worked out, the president says, Republicans forced his administration to reject a permit application by requiring an immediate decision as part of a December agreement to temporarily extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits.

This week, the company building the pipeline said it would proceed with a section from Cushing, Oklahoma, to the Gulf Coast that doesn't require federal approval and also reapply for permission to build the rest of the pipeline across the border from Canada.

"I did press the president on the Keystone pipeline. The president said, 'Well, you're going to get part of it,' " Boehner told reporters. "I just wish we were getting the part that would actually deliver the oil out of Canada and out of North Dakota."

McConnell framed the issue as an election-year predicament for Obama, saying "there's really no reason not to create those jobs now, rather than after the president's election."

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