WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama hosted low-key talks with congressional leaders Wednesday in what was described as an effort to find potential areas of legislative bipartisanship. Notably absent were any pressing deadlines, feuds or crises.
White House and Republican congressional aides said they were encouraged by the meeting and its focus on areas of common ground on jobs and energy initiatives. Both sides said it was possible to act on some legislation despite the partisan pressures of an election year.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said elements of a House Republican bill that extends assistance to small businesses "overlap considerably with the president's priorities." The office of Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Boehner was encouraged by what Obama had to say about the Republican legislation.
But Obama and the leaders disagreed on whether the president immediately should grant a permit for a Canada-Texas oil pipeline. Obama blocked the Keystone XL pipeline this year, citing uncertainty over a route that avoids the environmentally sensitive Sandhills region in Nebraska.
The pipeline's Canadian builder, TransCanada, said Monday it still hopes to build the full 1,700-mile pipeline and the White House said it would review an application for a new route.
Carney said calls to approve the pipeline now are "insulting to the American people" because there is no route to approve.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's office said in a statement that in the face of rising oil prices, the Obama administration could "stop taking actions that increase the price at the pump while limiting opportunities for American job growth."
It was the first such session at the White House since last July, when the administration and Congress were fiercely negotiating to avoid a government default.
Underscoring the effort to keep the meeting low-key, the White House didn't permit photographs of the start of the meeting.
The session, called by Obama, came after bipartisan majorities in Congress passed an extension of a payroll tax cut sought by the president. It also came amid budding efforts to pass bipartisan legislation to give support to small businesses.
Attending the meeting were Obama, Boehner, McConnell, R-Ky., Vice President Joe Biden, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
The meeting contrasts with the hardline tone the White House took against congressional Republicans after the debt crisis talks failed to result in a deficit reduction "grand bargain" last summer. Obama launched a jobs proposal and campaigned in two high-profile bus tours to draw attention to his plans.
Congress approved some elements of his economic agenda, including trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. But proposals to create construction jobs and to prevent layoffs of public employees went nowhere, and Obama's plan to pay for his plan by raising taxes on the wealthy also fell by the wayside.
The clash between the White House and Republicans culminated earlier in February in Republican acquiescence to a payroll tax cut extension without offsetting cuts in government spending.
Besides their differences on the oil pipeline, both sides also are embroiled in a skirmish over a contraception requirement in the new health care law. Republicans say it forces employers to provide health plans that offer contraception even though they may have religious objections to such coverage.
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