President Barack Obama may have expressed humility over the "shellacking" he took in the midterm elections. But he and his fellow Democrats made it clear they still differ with Republicans on many key issues, and all the talk of a new spirit of compromise could prove tough to follow up on.
Leaders of the two parties seemed to draw different lessons from the elections, in which Republicans took over the House and cut deeply into the Democrats' Senate majority.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky practically threatened Democrats with deeper losses in two years if they don't show more willingness to embrace GOP ideas for health care, taxes and other matters.
"They may have missed the message somewhat," McConnell told reporters. Democrats "can change now and work with us to address the issues that are important to the American people," he said, or they can refuse and see that another round of Republican wins "can happen in 2012," when Obama will seek re-election.
Obama, in a White House news conference Wednesday, said voters were expressing displeasure with both parties.
"I think that part of the message sent to Republicans was, 'We want to see stronger job growth in this country,'" the president said. He tweaked Republicans for almost always pushing tax cuts, regardless of economic conditions.
"From 2001 to 2009, we cut taxes pretty significantly," Obama said, "and we just didn't see the kind of expansion that is going to be necessary" to create jobs.
Obama and, to some degree, Republican leaders did signal they might reach accords on a few issues, such as energy. Obama abandoned his proposed cap-and-trade system for trying to reduce greenhouse gases, which Republicans sharply opposed. But he said the two parties might reach compromises on other fronts, such as promoting electric cars, nuclear power, energy efficiency and "energy independence."
Obama also said there should be bipartisan agreement on a plan to give businesses a tax break by letting them accelerate the depreciation of some equipment.
But those are relatively minor issues in the federal government universe. The array of Republican and Democratic postelection news conferences Wednesday gave virtually no hint about how Obama and the next Congress might tackle major issues such as immigration or Medicare's long-term viability.
Leaders in both parties talked about cutting spending. But there was barely a word about cutting big programs that consume so much of the federal budget, such as Social Security, Medicare and the military.
Obama hinted that he might be willing to extend Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans for a year or two but not make them permanent, as Republicans have advocated.
Republicans, meanwhile, spoke of working with Democrats only in vague terms. Mostly, they seemed defiant.
The election "was clearly a referendum on the administration and the Democratic majority," McConnell said. "We're determined to stop the agenda Americans have rejected and to turn the ship around."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that in light of the election, "Republicans must take the responsibility to solve the problems of ordinary Americans," although he added, "people expect us to work together."
Big clashes seem inevitable.
On the Democrats' signature health care law, House Speaker-to-be John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters, "We have to do everything we can to try to repeal this bill and replace it with common-sense reforms that'll bring down the cost of health insurance."
Obama, whose veto powers would seem to make repeal impossible, defended the law's main provisions at length.
"When I talk to a woman from New Hampshire who doesn't have to mortgage her house because she got cancer and is seeking treatment, but now is able to get health insurance; when I talk to parents who are relieved that their child with a preexisting condition can now stay on their policy" until age 26, "or the small businesses that are now taking advantage of the tax credits that are provided, then I say to myself, this was the right thing to do," Obama said.
He also rejected claims that he spent too much money to stimulate the economy, bail out banks and shore up automakers at the recession's height. Republicans hammered all those programs in the elections.
"We've stabilized the economy," Obama said. "We've got job growth in the private sectors. But people all across America aren't feeling that progress. They don't see it."
"I've got to take direct responsibility for the fact that we have not made as much progress as we need to make," he said.
Leaders of both parties said it will take time for the House, Senate and White House to see where they might find common ground.
Meanwhile, Boehner indirectly acknowledged that taming his own Republican caucus won't be easy. Asked how he would find the votes for an all-but-inevitable increase in the federal debt ceiling, given that tea partiers despise the idea, Boehner said, "We'll be working that out over the next couple of months."
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