WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama focused on "jobs, middle class, growth" Wednesday in a Capitol Hill meeting with Democrats on pressing issues ranging from immigration and spending to the rising crescendo of questions about the new health care law.
In the first of two closed-door sessions, Obama spoke with House Democrats broadly about finding common ground with Republicans and financial gains as the economy emerges from the worst downturn since the Depression. His fellow Democrats pressed the president on getting his help in next year's midterm elections as the party tries to reclaim the majority in the House.
Leaving the meeting, Obama said his message was about jobs and economic growth.
"It's really about a focus on growing the middle class in this county after a trend of not just recession but really a couple decades of really all of Americans working really hard and not making economic progress for themselves or their kids ... Whatever we do that has to be obviously at the top of our minds," Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., told reporters.
House Democrats presented the president with a birthday cake; Obama turns 52 on Sunday. Later in the morning, the president was huddling behind closed doors with Senate Democrats.
The sessions come just days before lawmakers leave the capital for a six-week recess and the prospect of facing constituents back home at town halls at a time when polls show Congress being held in low regard.
Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., said Democrats asked the president for his assistance in next year's midterm elections, traditionally a rough ride for the party controlling the White House.
The first major rewrite of immigration laws in a generation and legislation to keep the government running without interruption are paramount issues for Democrats. So is the president's contentious health care law, with uninsured people able to start shopping for a health plan on Oct. 1.
Provisions of the law that still baffle many Americans kick in on Jan. 1 although the administration announced earlier this month that it would delay a key requirement that employers with 50 or more workers offer affordable coverage, or face fines.
As Obama presses his economic agenda across the country, he's playing one chamber against the other in Congress, hoping Americans will hear his calls for compromise and conclude it's not his fault that little is getting done in Washington.
Call it a congressional two-step: Praise Senate Republicans for modest displays of cooperation, then contrast them with House Republicans, whom Obama has started describing as stubborn saboteurs. It's a theme Obama has used repeatedly to bolster his argument that he's the one acting reasonably as he prepares for clashes this fall with Congress, whose relations with Obama have always been notoriously strained.
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"A growing number of Republican senators are trying to get things done," Obama said Tuesday as he unveiled a new fiscal proposal in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Days earlier, Obama accused the House GOP of risking another financial crisis by issuing ultimatums over the debt ceiling and government funding.
"We've seen a group of Republicans in the House, in particular, who suggest they wouldn't vote to pay the very bills that Congress has already racked up," Obama said. "That's not an economic plan. That's just being a deadbeat."
Obama has reason to be cautiously optimistic about the Senate, which passed a far-reaching immigration overhaul Obama sorely sought with bipartisan support and struck a deal over Obama's nominees that has led to a flurry of confirmations after months of logjam. A number of prominent GOP senators have also criticized a Republican plan to threaten a government shutdown unless funding is cut off for Obama's health care law.
But even in the Senate, there's skepticism about Obama's intentions. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said Obama's contrasting tone about the House and Senate amounts to a divide-and-conquer strategy that calls into question the White House's outreach.
"These discussions have been going on for five years and no agreements have been reached yet," Sessions said. "It could be the president is playing the Senate like a fiddle."
On most issues — including pressing tax and spending matters — Senate and House Republicans are unified in their opposition. There was no telling Republicans apart Tuesday, for instance, as they panned a corporate tax cut and jobs spending package the White House had portrayed as a concession to Republicans — who oppose using tax revenue to support more spending. That proposal will be among the topics Obama discusses Wednesday when he meets separately with House and Senate Democrats.
For a president who vowed to change Washington and bust through gridlock, peeling off a handful of votes on immigration and nominees is hardly a case study in government by consensus. In fact, when Obama persistently knocks House Republicans, it only seems to reinforce that he's unlikely to get any major legislation through the House in his final years.
Senators, who represent statewide constituencies, may have fewer misgivings about working with Obama, and in recent weeks Obama's top aides, including his chief of staff and budget director, have held regular meetings with some Senate Republicans that both sides describe as productive and affable.
In the House, where most members come from lopsided districts that overwhelmingly favor or oppose the president, there's even less middle ground to navigate. In fact, White House aides say it would be counterproductive to cozy up to House Republicans, who need to prove they're actively fighting Obama's agenda lest they face a primary challenge from someone more conservative.
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"They worry they'll face swift political retaliation for cooperating with me," Obama said last week in Galesburg, Ill.
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said leaders want Obama more engaged with the GOP rank and file. He said Republicans perceive Obama's recent speeches as an attempt to get his head in the game for upcoming fights rather than a genuine attempt to move forward on policy.