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Obama, Republicans reposition for shift in power

The president, acknowledging his 'shellacking' in the midterm election, says he'll compromise on many issues. But he and Republicans appear poised for battle over the healthcare overhaul.

November 04, 2010|By Peter Nicholas and James Oliphant, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — As an uneasy realignment of political power began to solidify in Washington, President Obama conceded Wednesday that he had suffered "a shellacking" in the midterm election, and seemed headed toward a collision with Republican leaders over the administration's healthcare overhaul.

Republicans formed transition teams and released reports outlining their plans while a somber Obama held a news conference that was a mix of contrition and defiance.

Obama said he was open to compromise with Republican leaders, who picked up at least 60 seats in Tuesday's historic election, enough to regain control of the U.S. House when Congress opens its new session in January.

Tax cuts, changes in Washington's culture, and elimination of pet spending projects are issues on which the two sides might reach agreement, Obama said. But beyond a "tweak" or two, the president made plain he would not stand for repeal of a healthcare law that he views as the crowning achievement of his 22-month tenure.

Rep. John A. Boehner (R- Ohio) called the law a "monstrosity."

Obama, speaking to reporters in the East Room, said: "I think we'd be misreading the election if we thought that the American people want to see us for the next two years relitigate arguments that we had over the last two years."

The high-stakes confrontation is looming between the president and the reconfigured House of Representatives, in which Republicans are ascendant. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D- San Francisco) will be demoted, and Boehner is poised to take her place.

"The American people spoke, and I think it's pretty clear that the Obama-Pelosi agenda is being rejected by the American people," Boehner said. "They want the president to change course."

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), expected to become the House's new majority leader, said the party's focus would be on reviving the economy.

"The first order of business has got to be create jobs," he said.

But Cantor's office on Wednesday circulated a 22-page working blueprint for the new Congress in which he explicitly vowed to attack the healthcare bill on every front, describing it with the pejorative term "ObamaCare."

"If all of ObamaCare cannot be immediately repealed, then it is my intention to begin repealing it piece by piece, blocking funding for its implementation, and blocking the issuance of the regulations necessary to implement it," Cantor said in the document. "In short, it is my intention to use every tool at our disposal to achieve full repeal of ObamaCare."

As the two parties positioned themselves in the new political landscape, results from Tuesday's elections were still coming in. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) prevailed in a tight race against Republican Ken Buck, a "tea party" candidate. That means Republicans have thus far picked up six Senate seats — four short of the number needed to gain the majority.

Senate contests in Alaska and Washington remained too close to call Wednesday. The race in Alaska, which involves write-in candidate Sen. Lisa Murkowski, could take weeks to resolve.

Obama held his news conference following an election that found him on the wrong side of a piece of political history. Less than a dozen House races are still undecided. But based on the results as of Wednesday, the GOP pick-ups represent the largest midterm gain by either party since 1938.

Much as he insisted the election was not a referendum on him, Obama campaigned as though his name was on the ballot. He crisscrossed the country for his party, painting Republicans as an incompetent, obstructionist and backward-looking force in American politics. Now, his agenda is where he hoped it would never be — at least partly in Republican hands.

He offered conciliatory words in his hourlong news conference, hoping to bridge differences that widened over the course of a toxic campaign. Rather than putting forward an agenda reflecting Democratic interests, he said policy must be an amalgam of ideas embraced by both parties.

"So I think what we're going to need to do, and what the American people want, is for us to mix and match ideas, figure out those areas where we can agree on, move forward on those; disagree without being disagreeable on those areas that we can't agree on," Obama said.

In the next few weeks, he said he would hold a meeting with the four leaders of the House and Senate to discuss the tax cuts that are set to expire, among other issues.

Aides to the president said he wanted to govern from the center. In his news conference, he made his first postelection overture along those lines. He even appeared ready for a deal on the expiring tax cuts.

Throughout the campaign season, Obama criticized Republican insistence on extending all of the Bush tax cuts, which are set to expire this year.

His plan was to extend the cuts for people who earn less than $250,000 a year, but to let them run out for those making more.

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