(Corrects Cantor’s age to 49 in paragraph 11)
* Chief Obama critic says he hopes to work with president
* Cantor calls for initiatives in education, healthcare, immigration
By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Eric Cantor, the combative second-ranking Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives, launched a major rebranding of his party on Tuesday, saying he hoped Republicans and President Barack Obama could “set differences aside” in the interest of helping ordinary Americans.
While giving no ground on any of the outstanding differences between House Republicans and Obama in a speech prepared for delivery to the American Enterprise Institute, the change in tone from one of the most partisan leaders of the House was striking.
It followed months of rethinking among Republicans about their image among Americans following Obama’s victory in the November election and their recent retreat from a confrontation they had looked forward to over the nation’s borrowing limit.
Cantor, who has been one of Obama’s toughest adversaries over the past two years, made only passing reference to the bitter fights with Obama over “cliffs, debt ceilings and budgets” in which he has played such a visible role.
While giving no ground on those or any other issues, he said it was time to focus on “what lies beyond” them, including education, jobs, healthcare and innovation.
Similarly, he made no particular concessions on comprehensive immigration reform which is being advanced by Obama and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators.
But he spoke sympathetically of the aspirations of immigrants, both documented and undocumented.
“It is my hope that I can stand before you in two years and report back that our side, as well as the president‘s, found within us the ability to set differences aside, to provide relief to so many millions of Americans who simply want their lives to work again,” Cantor said.
A Washington Post-ABC News/Washington poll last month found that 67 percent of Americans say that Republicans are doing “too little” to work with Obama.
The survey gave Republicans in Congress an approval rating of 24 percent, compared to a 37 percent rating for Democrats. Obama’s approval recently hit a four-year high of 60 percent.
Cantor, 49, is widely seen as a possible successor to John Boehner, 63, as House Speaker, the chamber’s top job.
While the two insist that they have a close working relationship, at times they have offered competing visions. On Tuesday, however, Boehner said they were on the same page.
Speaking with reporters after a meeting with House Republicans, Boehner said, “As I told the members, Eric’s giving a very important speech.”
“While there’s a lot of focus on the deficit and debt, there are a lot of other things that Republicans plan to do over the course of this year,” Boehner said.
“And if we’re going to connect with the American people, it’s important that they see, not only that we’re serious about solving our debt problem, but we’re serious about addressing issues like energy, like education, to show really the breath of the effort that we’re involved in,” Boehner added.
During the past two years, the White House has tried to make Cantor the face of congressional Republicans, and has made it clear that Obama prefers working with Boehner.
In an apparent effort to present a softer personal image, Cantor punctuated his prepared speech with references to a long lineup of people, including his wife and three children, his dad, a Baltimore nurse and a police officer from his hometown of Richmond, Virginia.
He spoke of visiting an inner-city school this week, and introduced a student from the school and his father.
“Our solutions will be based on the conservative principles of self reliance, faith in the individual, trust in the family and accountability in government,” Cantor said. (Editing by Fred Barbash and Eric Walsh)