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Published November 17, 2010

Whether it was a political delay tactic or a scheduling mishap, Republicans are finding themselves in a PR battle to explain their canceling on President Obama’s announced meeting Thursday with congressional leaders.

Having canceled a press conference on Wednesday scheduled to follow the House GOP’s leadership election, Republicans said they also don’t have time to pay a visit to the White House while they are still in planning and organizational mode.

But Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, rejected even calling the delay a postponement because the only date Republicans agreed to was Nov. 30 when all members would be free to meet.

“That’s literally all there is to it,” he told FoxNews.com.

But that hasn’t stopped Democrats from suggesting the GOP is swayed by the Tea Party not to cooperate.

Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland said Wednesday he believes Republicans canceled the White House meeting because they aren’t organized and could be under pressure from the Tea Party.

The meeting, whenever it happens, will be the first time Obama sits down with the new bipartisan leaders of Congress since the midterm elections two weeks ago when Republicans won control of the House and gained seats in the Senate.

But White House chief spokesman Robert Gibbs took the high road on Wednesday, saying that Republicans asked to change the date so they could get their caucuses more organized. If it’s inconvenient for the GOP, the president can wait until Nov. 30, Gibbs said.

The test, he added, is not when the meeting is held but whether or not the two sides are working together.

McConnell said Wednesday morning that he is looking forward to meeting with the White House at the end of this month to discuss the issues they agree on.

“I believe that we can work together to increase opportunities for job growth here at home through increased trade opportunities abroad,” he said. “I agree with the president that we should increase our exploration of clean coal technology and nuclear energy. And Republicans feel strongly that we need to reduce spending and our national debt.”

“We can work together on all of those items, and the White House meeting is a good opportunity for congressional Democrats to join us on these efforts,” he said.

Simon Rosenberg, a Democratic operative who worked on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, told Fox News that he believes a newly empowered GOP will be able to work with Obama and Democrats.

“With this greater power for the Republicans comes greater responsibility,” he said. “I think there will be a real effort by both parties to find the common ground that they can work on while also standing their ground.”

But Republican strategist Ford O’Connell, who worked on Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said Republicans canceled the meeting because they smell a rat.

“Look, the latest meeting is obviously an Axelrod PR stunt. It reeks of it,” he told Fox News. “After Obamacare, the president has a lot to do in terms of working to get Republican trust back.”

O’Connell was referring to the president’s appearance last spring at a GOP retreat in Baltimore where Obama was seen as using the meeting to ambush Republicans on national television and browbeat them.

“People expected everybody to come together and essentially President Obama burned them and it’s going to take a long time for them to get over that,” O’Connell said. “But they don’t have a long time. They are on the clock. They have to work with the White House to achieve it, especially on tax cuts.”

Both parties were holding leadership elections in the House on Wednesday. But with everyone strategizing about the delay of game on the White House meeting, the GOP has delayed plans for a press conference after the votes.

The “leadership table will not have been set by the original time — the freshmen will not have had their elections concluded,” a Republican aide told Fox News.

On Wednesday, GOP freshmen have an organizational meeting and they don’t want everyone to appear until the freshmen representatives to the leadership are set.

One theory on Capitol Hill suggested that freshmen lawmakers and Tea Party activists wanted to make sure they fully understood the role of the freshman representatives to leadership and wanted to hear first about GOP conference rules. A source also said Republicans didn’t want to take questions on why they canceled the White House meeting.