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Tensions between parties mount

Partisan tensions are escalating over President Obama’s plans to revamp the nation’s healthcare system and push through other policies, just as Congress is taking up the heart of his first-term agenda.

In the latest sign of the combative environment, Democratic and progressive groups announced Thursday that they were launching an Internet and television campaign to promote Obama’s goals and -- in some cases -- to paint Republicans as obstructionist.

The Democratic National Committee, which has absorbed Obama’s campaign operation, unveiled a Web video calling the GOP the “Party of No.” The ad is a montage of party leaders voicing objections to Obama’s policies, ending with the words: “100 days of no.”

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The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the group Americans United for Change will air a similar national cable ad beginning today.

The ad rattles off a series of bills that have passed since Obama took office. “Just days into the new session of Congress, Democrats expanded health insurance for children; the Republicans said no,” the ad begins. “The Democrats passed equal pay for women; the Republicans said no.”

In a news conference Thursday, AFSCME President Gerald McEntee blamed Republicans for the divisiveness.

“They’re not interested in collaboration with this president,” McEntee said, adding: “I haven’t even seen a healthcare plan from these birds yet. . . . And you look at [Obama’s] favorability in terms of the polls and look at theirs, and it seems they’re all in the truck and they’re going to drive it over a cliff. Well, maybe they should.”

But Democratic leaders in the House have staked out positions on healthcare that offer little room for compromise with the GOP. Senate Democrats are poised to join their House counterparts in approving the use of a procedure that would let them pass a healthcare bill without the 60-vote supermajority needed to block a filibuster. GOP leaders have cautioned Democrats not to resort to such shortcuts.

Underscoring the fractious climate, Republicans are blocking a quick confirmation vote on Obama’s choice for Health and Human Services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius. The Kansas governor is expected to be a crucial player in passing an Obama plan to lower the cost of healthcare and expand coverage.

House GOP leaders said to Obama in a letter this week that his party was shutting them out on a range of issues.

“Unfortunately, there has been a sad lack of bipartisanship. This lack of bipartisanship has been a major detriment to your stated desire to change the way that Washington works,” read the letter from House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia and three others.

Obama has pledged to be a more inclusive president who works to end the protracted standoff between the parties. Aides point to a raft of bipartisan meetings as proof of his sincerity. Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky attended one such meeting Thursday in the White House Cabinet room.

Obama at one point said that he wished there had been more bipartisanship since he took office nearly 100 days ago, a reference to the $787-billion stimulus package that passed with no GOP votes, according to a White House official.

The official -- who requested anonymity when discussing administration thinking -- said that in the meeting, Obama told the Republicans that “he was committed to ensuring they had a seat at the table, but that it was up to the Republicans to choose whether or not to engage. And he hoped they would.”

At a news briefing Thursday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was asked whether Obama would use his stature as head of the Democratic Party to call for the removal of the DNC’s anti-Republican video. Gibbs said: “I don’t know that the president has seen the video.”

Healthcare efforts will test the parties’ commitment to operating in collegial fashion. Democrats are considering a tactic called reconciliation, which would enable the Senate to pass Obama’s plan with a simple 51-vote majority. Though they enjoy majorities in both chambers, Democrats don’t have the 60 Senate votes needed to stave off a filibuster.

McConnell recently said that reconciliation would “make it absolutely clear that they intend to carry out all of their plans on a purely partisan basis. Look . . . we expect to be a part of the process.”

Advocates of a new healthcare system said that, optimally, a bill would win bipartisan support. But they said that if the GOP won’t go along, Democrats would be justified in using the brute strength of their majority status.

Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a nonprofit group that represents healthcare consumers, said: “We have said all along that the clear preferred route for healthcare reform is that it be done in a bipartisan manner. It would provide greater stability and public support for reform. However, as much as the public values bipartisanship, it values even more the objective of achieving high-quality, affordable healthcare for everyone.

“And so, if the choice is bipartisanship that fails to achieve key goals, I think the Democrats are well advised to consider the alternative route.”

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

Noam N. Levey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.


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