WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama applauded the return of federal workers Thursday after a 16-day government shutdown, calling for an end to the partisan rift that he said "inflicted completely unnecessary damage" on the U.S. economy.
"There are no winners here," Obama said Thursday at the White House. "These last few weeks have inflicted completely unnecessary damage on our economy."
The president called for a change in Washington's political climate.
"To all my friends in Congress, understand that how business is done in this town has to change because we've all got a lot of work to do on behalf of the American people and that includes the hard work of regaining their trust," Obama said.
"There's no good reason why we can't govern responsibly, despite our differences, without lurching from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis."
"Good morning folks, thank you for your service," called out Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack as no-longer-furloughed civil servants streamed from the nearby Smithsonian Metro station through the doors of agency headquarters.
Vice President Joe Biden greeted employees at the Environmental Protection Agency, and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough shook hands with returning workers at the guarded gate outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
At the National Zoo, officials turned the popular panda cam back on, revealing an older, fatter and more robust black and white cub than was last seen more than two weeks earlier. The cub, now nearly two months old, gained two pounds during the shutdown, the zoo announced Thursday.
The Department of Veteran Affairs said it would issue benefit payments to about 5 million veterans, survivors and their families on Nov. 1 as scheduled, now that funding has been restored.
The VA had warned that if the shutdown continued to the end of the month, it would run out of funds and be unable to issue checks, a disclosure that caused major consternation among lawmakers and veterans.
Still, Obama had a pointed message for the Republicans who had pushed to repeal his signature health care law in exchange for funding the government, saying, "You don't like a particular policy, or a particular president, then argue for your position. Go out there and win an election."
He called on Washington to "stop focusing on the lobbyists, and the bloggers, and the talking heads on radio, and the professional activists who profit from conflict, and focus on what the majority of Americans sent us here to do."
He laid out three priorities: hammering out a long-range budget, overhauling the nation's immigration laws and passing a farm bill that has stalled amid deep partisan differences.
"Those are three specific things that would make a huge difference in our economy right now, and we could get them done by the end of the year — if our focus is on what's good for the American people," he said.
But Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a leading opponent of Obama's health-care law, declined to rule out another shutdown over the issue. "I will continue to do anything to stop the train wreck that is 'Obamacare,' " Cruz told ABC News on Thursday. Pressed on whether he would rule out a second shutdown, he said only that he would "stand with the American people working to stop 'Obamacare.' "
Compromise has long eluded the administration and Congress on a host of issues, but top budget negotiators met for breakfast Thursday, insisting this time would be different.
After all, said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top House Budget Committee Democrat, "not talking guarantees failure. Talking doesn't guarantee success, but if you don't get together, obviously, you can't move forward."
Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, also sounded a note of cooperation: "There's a lot we can do, a number of things I know we can agree on and I hope we could agree on."
Democrats and Republicans disagree on spending levels for discretionary items, or items Congress can largely control. Republicans want to spend roughly $967 billion this year; Democrats are about $90 billion higher.
The last time the two parties tried long-range budget talks, in 2011, they went nowhere.
But Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the goals are attainable. "Our job is to make sure that we have put forward a spending cap and a budget path for this Congress in the next year or two, or further if we can," she said.
Advocates for a sweeping overhaul of the nation's immigration laws cheered Obama's remarks, but it's unclear whether the frayed relations between Senate Democrats and House Republicans will lead to a compromise on the issue.
The Democratic-led Senate passed legislation over the summer that would put the nation's 11 million undocumented residents on a path to citizenship. But many Republican House members oppose a sweeping overhaul and would prefer narrower bills that do not include a path to citizenship.
Likewise, there are huge differences between the two chambers over the farm bill.
House and Senate members are poised to begin work in a conference committee as early as next week to reconcile differences.