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Divisions persist in Congress as Obama holds meeting on economy

By Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau –

WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama welcomed congressional leaders for a White House chat over hoagies about setting aside differences to improve the economy, a far different scenario was unfolding at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Republicans in the House and Senate were conducting a series of partisan maneuvers Wednesday on legislation that has no chance of reaching the president’s desk. The votes in the Senate on budget measures, which would slash social programs and revamp Medicare, were designed to underscore the GOP’s alternatives to Obama’s policies in advance of the November election.

Democrats, meanwhile, ignited a fury in the House by trying to enhance a typically bipartisan domestic violence protection bill, the Violence Against Women Act, with new protections for gay, lesbian and immigrant victims in ways they knew would draw fire from Republicans.

Both parties have reached the same conclusion: It is more valuable to pick fights and highlight differences in this election year than to search for common ground.

Democrats are “putting their desire for campaign material ahead of their responsibility to govern,” complained Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, as he opened the day’s debate in the Senate.

But McConnell could easily be accused of the same strategy. The leader who once said his top priority was to defeat Obama pushed for an afternoon exercise of “show votes” on five budget proposals — all doomed to fail.

Republicans wanted to reinforce the message that they are making the tough fiscal choices necessary to stem the country’s rising debt load — even if they do not have and do not try to win the votes needed for passage.

Senate Republicans tried, unsuccessfully, to pass Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul D. Ryan’s budget blueprint, which would slash government spending and overhaul Medicare and had been approved by the Republican-controlled House without a single Democratic vote. Other options from the party’s conservative wing hewed further to the right.

Republicans also forced a roll call on Obama’s own budget proposal. That compelled Democrats to either vote against the White House or go on record in an election year supporting a tax increase that has no hope of advancing. It was shot down.

“It seems that in this Congress people are more content to propose things to defeat President Obama than to move the nation forward,” said Rep. John B. Larson of Connecticut, a Democratic leader.

On Wednesday at the White House, the breaking of bread — or, in this case, the eating of take-out gourmet sandwiches — appeared to do little to change the dynamic.

Obama convened the meeting to discuss his “to-do” list for Congress — a collection of modest proposals to help the economy. Republicans have dismissed his ideas as a “Post-it”-sized agenda.

House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, asked Obama if he planned to seek an increase in the debt ceiling in the months ahead without making the spending cuts Republicans have demanded.

The president said he did not want to “replay” the debt fight from last August, according to White House spokesman Jay Carney.

Boehner said, “As long as I’m around here, I’m not going to allow a debt ceiling increase without doing something serious about the debt,” according to his office.

The House, meanwhile, was taking up the GOP version of the Violence Against Women Act, a usually bipartisan bill that has fallen prey to partisan wrangling.

Democrats expanded the bill to explicitly include protections for gay and lesbian victims and increase the number of visas available to immigrant victims of domestic abuse — practically daring Republicans to vote against it.

Enough Republicans broke with their party in the Senate to help pass the Democratic version.

But the GOP-led House stripped out the provisions for gays, immigrants and another for American Indians.

The GOP added new minimum sentences for those convicted of domestic and sexual abuse, which Democrats largely opposed.

The bill passed, but now must be reconciled with the Senate version. That could be difficult.

“I haven’t heard kumbaya in so long,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the minority leader. “I wouldn’t even recognize it around here.”

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