Associated Press

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- After quarreling for months, President Barack Obama and the top two Republicans in Congress expressed optimism Wednesday about finding a common jobs and energy agenda, prodded by political reality to show results in an election year.

Meeting face-to-face for the first time since July, Obama, the Republican leaders and top Democratic lawmakers emerged without the acrimony and crises that have been normal hallmarks of their relationships.

"The president believes that there were some areas where we could find common ground, and frankly I was encouraged," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said.

The session, called by Obama, came after bipartisan majorities in Congress passed an extension of a payroll tax cut sought by the president. White House and congressional aides said participants concluded it was possible to act on more legislation despite the partisan pressures of an election year.

"I think there is an indication here that we can get some things done, and we look forward to doing that," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Cooperation is likely on measures that face the least resistance, such as uncontroversial initiatives aimed at helping small businesses raise capital and create jobs. Carney said elements of a House Republican bill that extends assistance to small businesses "overlap considerably with the president's priorities."

Though hardly an all-out thaw in the relationship, the meeting signaled a new emphasis on finding common ground. Driving Republican efforts to find legislative successes are public approval levels for Congress and congressional Republicans in particular that are at historic lows. And while White House officials believe the clashes with Congress have improved Obama's standing, they say any legislative accomplishments would accrue to his benefit as well.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the burden now falls on Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

"I hope that the majority leader, who's responsible . for deciding what bills we will turn to, will turn to bills that can actually pass and be signed into law," McConnell said.

Still, Obama and the leaders disagreed on whether the president immediately should grant a permit for a Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline. Obama blocked the Keystone XL pipeline this year, citing uncertainty over a route that avoids the environmentally sensitive Sand Hills region in Nebraska.

The pipeline's Canadian builder, TransCanada, said Monday it still hopes to build the full 1,700-mile pipeline, and the White House said it would review an application for a new route.

Carney said calls to approve the pipeline now are "insulting to the American people" because there is no route to approve.

McConnell's office said in a statement that in the face of rising oil prices, the Obama administration could "stop taking actions that increase the price at the pump while limiting opportunities for American job growth."

The House Republican bills aimed at small business would remove a Securities and Exchange Commission ban preventing small businesses from using advertisements to solicit investors; eliminate SEC restrictions that prevent "crowdfunding" so entrepreneurs can raise equity capital from a large pool of small investors; make it easier for small businesses to go public by increasing the threshold under which companies are exempt from SEC registration; and raise the shareholder registration requirement threshold from 500 shareholders to 1,000 shareholders.

Wednesday's meeting was the first such session at the White House since last summer, when the administration and Congress were fiercely negotiating to avoid a government default.

Underscoring the effort to keep the meeting low-key, the White House didn't permit photographs of the start of the session.

Attending the meeting were Obama, Boehner, McConnell, Reid, Vice President Joe Biden and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

The meeting contrasts with the hard-line tone the White House took against congressional Republicans after the summer's debt crisis talks failed to result in a deficit-reduction "grand bargain." Obama then launched a $447 billion jobs proposal and campaigned in two high-profile bus tours to draw attention to his plans.

Congress approved some elements of his economic agenda, including trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. But proposals to create construction jobs and to prevent layoffs of public employees went nowhere, and Obama's plan to pay for his plan by raising taxes on the wealthy also fell by the wayside.

The clash between the White House and Republicans culminated earlier in February in Republican acquiescence to a Social Security payroll tax cut extension without offsetting cuts in government spending.

Besides their differences on the oil pipeline, both sides also are embroiled in a skirmish over a contraception requirement in the new health care law. Republicans say it forces employers to provide health plans that offer contraception even though they may have religious objections to such coverage.


Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.