President Barack Obama applauded the return of federal workers Thursday after a 16-day government shutdown, calling for an end to the partisan rift that he said “inflicted completely unnecessary damage” on the U.S. economy.
Speaking at the White House hours after he signed legislation that reopened national parks and put federal inspectors back on the job, Obama called for a change in Washington’s political climate.
“To all my friends in Congress, understand that how business is done in this town has to change because we’ve all got a lot of work to do on behalf of the American people and that includes the hard work of regaining their trust,” Obama said. “There’s no good reason why we can’t govern responsibly, despite our differences, without lurching from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis.”
Still, he had a pointed message for the Republicans who had pushed to repeal his signature health care law in exchange for funding the government, saying, “You don’t like a particular policy, or a particular president, then argue for your position. Go out there and win an election.”
He called on Washington to “stop focusing on the lobbyists, and the bloggers, and the talking heads on radio and the professional activists who profit from conflict, and focus on what the majority of Americans sent us here to do.”
He laid out three priorities: hammering out a long-range budget, overhauling the nation’s immigration laws and passing a farm bill that has stalled amid deep partisan differences.
“Those are three specific things that would make a huge difference in our economy right now, and we could get them done by the end of the year – if our focus is on what’s good for the American people,” he said.
Compromise has long eluded the administration and Congress on a host of issues, but top budget negotiators met for breakfast Thursday, insisting this time would be different.
After all, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top House Budget Committee Democrat, “not talking guarantees failure. Talking doesn’t guarantee success, but if you don’t get together, obviously, you can’t move forward.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, also sounded a note of cooperation: “There’s a lot we can do, a number of things I know we can agree on and I hope we could agree on.”
Democrats and Republicans disagree on spending levels for discretionary items, or items Congress can largely control. Republicans want to spend roughly $967 billion this year; Democrats are about $90 billion higher.
The last time the two parties tried long-range budget talks, in 2011, they went nowhere.
But Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the goals are attainable. “Our job is to make sure that we have put forward a spending cap and a budget path for this Congress in the next year or two, or further if we can,” she said.
Advocates for a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws cheered Obama’s remarks, but it’s unclear whether the frayed relations between Senate Democrats and House Republicans will lead to a compromise on the issue.
The Democratic-led Senate passed legislation over the summer that would put the nation’s 11 million undocumented residents on a path to citizenship. But many Republican House members oppose a sweeping overhaul and would prefer narrower bills that do not include a path to citizenship, which many liken to “amnesty” for people illegally in the country.
Likewise, there are huge differences between the two chambers over the farm bill. House and Senate members are poised begin work in a conference committee as early as next week to reconcile differences in farm legislation that each chamber passed.
The House bill contains nearly $40 billion in cuts over 10 years in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as the food stamps program. The program serves about 48 million low-income Americans. The House bill would cause about 3 million people to lose benefits.
The Senate bill, by contrast, seeks to cut only $4.5 billion in spending from food stamps. The House-Senate conference could be a raucous affair, with personalities like conservative Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, and blunt Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The White House celebrated the opening of the government Thursday. Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, greeted returning employees at the White House, and Vice President Joe Biden delivered muffins and shook hands at the Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in downtown Washington.
But Press Secretary Jay Carney wouldn’t say that Obama had won the fight, though he succeeded in getting the government reopened and the debt ceiling lifted with little change to the health care law.
“If that is winning, it is not worth winning,” Carney said of the shutdown. “The harm that is done to the American people, the harm that’s done to the American economy, he does not want that.”
Carney didn’t say whether Obama believed his own governing style needed work as well, but he said Obama would continue to hold meetings and dinners with lawmakers, noting that the president “began his second term embracing the idea that more direct engagement with lawmakers of both parties was worth the effort.”
David Lightman and Franco Ordonez of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.