Republicans intensified their confrontation with the White House on Thursday as the party's Senate leader defended his controversial assertion that a top GOP priority is to make Barack Obama a one-term president.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said the Republicans' steadfast resistance to Obama contributed to Tuesday's electoral romp and that defeating the president in 2012 remained a leading priority.
McConnell's comments, before a conservative Washington think tank, came as congressional leaders and the White House continued adjusting to historic shifts in political power in the Capitol. McConnell vowed to attack the administration's healthcare overhaul in coming months and to pursue other top GOP goals.
Obama invited congressional leaders to dinner Nov. 18 at the White House in one sign of post-election bipartisanship. When the lawmakers come to work in January, the president will face a Republican-controlled House and a narrowed Democratic majority in the Senate, an unusual split.
McConnell previewed the tensions likely to develop between the strengthened Republican Party and its rivals.
"Some have said it was indelicate of me to suggest that our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term in office," McConnell said during a speech at the Heritage Foundation.
"But the fact is, if our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill, to end the bailouts, cut spending and shrink the size and scope of government," he said, "the only way to do all these things is to put someone in the White House who won't veto any of these things."
David Axelrod, Obama's senior advisor, said: "I don't know exactly what's behind his thinking, but I know this: Anyone who reads the results of Nov. 2 as a vote for more partisanship, more obstruction and more acerbic rhetoric is simply misreading the outcome.
"People don't want more Washington-style partisan politics. They want both parties to work together to try and solve problems. I believe that over time, those who maybe read it wrong will hear from voters and change course."
The confrontational talk comes as Congress is preparing to reconvene later this month for a potentially long and difficult lame-duck session.
At the top of the agenda for that session is the thorny debate over extending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, which affect every taxpayer and expire at the end of the year. Obama on Wednesday signaled a willingness to negotiate on his position that the reduced rates be extended only to those families making less than $250,000 a year, or $200,000 for individuals.
Republicans want the tax cuts extended to all Americans — even those making more than $250,000.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Thursday reiterated the administration's willingness to reach a compromise on the issue, saying the tax cuts will be a major item of discussion when Obama dines with eight Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate this month.
"He's certainly willing to listen to both sides," Gibbs said.
But the extra $700 billion it would cost to extend the breaks to wealthier households remains a divisive issue.
"Making those tax cuts for the upper end permanent is something the president does not believe is a good idea," Gibbs said.
The House is undergoing a major upheaval as power changes hands from Democratic to Republican control. But in the Senate, neither side has shown a desire to meet the other part way.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday that Republicans must be willing to compromise.
"The ball is in their court," Reid said, fresh off his own hard-fought victory. "We're willing to work with you. You should be willing to work with us. This is not a one-way street."
McConnell countered: "If the administration wants cooperation, it will have to begin to move in our direction."
Many Republicans have avoided gloating after Tuesday's landslide. Rep. John A. Boehner (R- Ohio), likely to become the House speaker, toned down his rhetoric while still making clear his opposition to Obama's priorities.
McConnell, though, despite his outward air of a Southern gentleman, has emerged as a GOP bulldog.
"The mandate for change is directed at the other guys," he said.