WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Republican congressional leaders briefly put aside their election-year attacks on each other on Wednesday for a working lunch that the White House billed as an effort to find common ground on strengthening the economy.
Obama and his fellow Democrats are at odds with Republicans over how to tackle high unemployment and surging government deficits. Both sides have been seeking to highlight their sharply differing policy prescriptions to win over voters before the November elections.
It was not immediately clear if any real progress was made in the meeting, which included House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican, and Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Both sides went out of their way to stress the constructive tone of the conversation.
“Certainly, there is reason to hope that if Congress can focus on resolving some differences, we could get some progress,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said, referring to jobs proposals put forward by House Republicans.
The lunch, the first between Obama and bipartisan congressional leaders since July 23, 2011, took place against the backdrop of sharply escalating election-year rhetoric and continued partisan gridlock in Congress.
That polarization was underscored on Tuesday, when moderate Republican Senator Olympia Snowe announced she would not seek a fourth six-year term because she had grown tired of the partisan battles that have left both sides bloodied and bruised.
Shortly before going to the White House, McConnell took to the Senate floor to blast Obama’s energy policies for a second straight day. His speech was part of a coordinated Republican effort to exploit voter anxiety over rising gas prices.
McConnell said Obama’s “simplistic” policies were “driving up the cost of gasoline and increase our dependence on foreign sources of oil.”
The lunch was initiated by the White House, which said the aim was “to find common ground on legislative priorities that will create jobs and strengthen America’s economy.”
Obama has made running against a “do-nothing Congress” a central plank of his re-election campaign.
Analysts say Republicans, who get a bigger share of the blame for the Capitol Hill gridlock in polls, need to show voters that they can work with Democrats.
With polls showing voters are turned off by the failure of both parties to agree on even the most basic legislation, Obama is under pressure to show he can rise above the partisan fray.
But even former administration officials, such as Jared Bernstein, Vice President Joe Biden’s former chief economic adviser, expressed puzzlement at the purpose of the meeting.
“There is definitely a need for economic policy coming down from Congress, but the political constraints in an election year amplified by a level of partisanship that is as high as I’ve ever seen it, leads me to be very skeptical that we’re going to see very much at all,” he said.
“I suspect that they will all enjoy their salads and entrees,” he joked. “That’s the common ground I would predict.”
Reporting By Alister Bull, Richard Cowan, Donna Smith and Samson Reiny, editing by Ross Colvin.