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Obama takes a break for some bipartisanship

Signing ceremonies for Stock Act, Jobs Act emphasize joint efforts

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President Obama this week is showcasing two bipartisan bills he helped power over the finish line in Congress, inviting Republicans to the White House to celebrate one of the few brief moments of bipartisan unity in a politically contentious election year.

On Wednesday, Mr. Obama held a signing ceremony for a bill aimed at holding members of Congress to the same insider-trading laws as everyone else, and on Thursday he will hold another for a measure aimed at helping small businesses and startups raise capital by easing several Securities and Exchange Commission regulations.

"The powerful shouldn't get to create one set of rules for themselves and another for everybody else, especially at a time where there's a deficit of trust between this city and the rest of the country," Mr. Obama said Wednesday at the White House signing ceremony for the Stock Act.

"We're sent here to serve the American people, and to look out for their interests — not look out for our own interests," he added.

Several members who shepherded the legislation through Congress were on hand for the signing, including Sen. Scott P. Brown, Massachusetts Republican, who is locked in an intense re-election campaign against Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor who led the charge for the creation of the Obama administration's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The president also has extended an invitation to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, to join him for Thursday's signing of the Jobs Act, a move that indicates the president may be trying to mend some fences after some heated exchanges with Mr. Cantor during last summer's debt-ceiling debate.

Some congressional Republicans expressed frustration with the president after he canceled a signing ceremony for the free-trade deals reached last fall and his decision not to hold a signing ceremony when Congress passed the payroll-tax-cut extension in February.

"I hope it's that all of us are looking toward driving toward results and looking toward solutions," Mr. Cantor said Sunday about his invitation. "We all know there are plenty of differences between the two sides in Washington."

The brief flashes of bipartisan celebration are jarring, coming as they do the same week Mr. Obama went into full campaign mode by launching his fiercest attack yet on the House GOP's budget priorities of lower taxes and spending and Republicans responded with equally forceful retorts.

The two bill signings represent significant accomplishments for both Mr. Obama, who used the bully pulpit to force Congress to act, and Republicans, who agreed to go along with the compromises despite reservations within their conferences.

House GOP leaders supported the insider-trading measure even as one of their members was facing scrutiny on the issue and others said they feared the measure would lead to insider-trading ethics witch hunts.

The Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent ethics board made up of former members of Congress, already is looking at the trading activities of Rep. Spencer Bachus, Alabama Republican and chairman of the Financial Services Committee.

Mr. Bachus made more than three dozen trades in the two months surrounding financial collapse and subsequent $700 billion economic bailout by Congress.

Mr. Bachus' activities were reported on CBS' "60 Minutes" in a report about alleged insider trading by both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. The report was an extension of "Throw Them All Out," a book by Peter Schweizer released in November.

After the reports, Mr. Obama called on Congress in his 2012 State of the Union address to pass the Stock Act.

The Stock Act requires senators, House members, top administration officials and federal judges to report most financial transactions of $1,000 or more within 45 days. Transactions involving widely held mutual funds, pension plans or similar investments are exempt.

"The president seized on the public outrage, urged Congress to quickly pass legislation and then wasted no time signing the bill into law," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Though Ms. Sloan accused the House of weakening the Stock Act, she said she still favors the new law because it will force members to disclose their stock trades, enabling the public to compare them with congressional action.

Some legal experts doubted the need for an additional law aimed specifically at lawmakers' activity, considering that existing laws prohibiting insider trading are supposed to apply to everyone.

Tamar Frankel, a law professor at Boston University, suggested the law passed because it gives both sides something to agree on in an otherwise hotly partisan climate.

"I am not sure that we needed a law to specify these prohibitions in misappropriating insider information that they received in the performance of their functions," she said. "But if the statute is a way to bring the warring parties to agree on something, the statute is welcome."

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