Obama, GOP leaders work on map for days ahead

President Obama weathered Democratic losses this fall but also spent time passing out candy and visiting "The Daily Show."
By Anne E. Kornblut and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 11:28 AM

President Obama sat down with the new Republican congressional leaders Tuesday for their first face-to-face meeting, one with a stated mission to make progress on ratifying an arms agreement with Russia and reaching a deal on soon-to-expire tax cuts.

But neither side anticipated emerging with a grand compromise. Instead, the goal was to set a course for the weeks ahead - and to try to determine whether either side is serious about making concessions necessary to reach a deal.

White House officials sought to downplay expectations for the event, which the president had originally set for a week and a half earlier but had to postpone when Republicans complained they had not been adequately consulted. Obama's aides said the session was "not a summit" and described it as "just one meeting" among many.

The closed-door session, set to start at 10:30 a.m., had no fixed agenda. Instead, the participants - including Vice President Biden and the top two Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate - gathered in the Roosevelt Room for what may amount to a bit of lame-duck theater, with each side attempting to appear simultaneously magnanimous and resolute.

Obama was scheduled to make a statement to reporters afterward, and the lawmakers were certain to flock to the cameras as well.

On Monday, Obama said he hoped the meeting would serve simply as a "first step toward a new and productive working relationship" between the two parties, pointing to the "shared responsibility" both sides have now that Republicans are about to assume control of the House.

In an appeal to Republican deficit hawks, Obama also announced a two-year pay freeze for civilian federal workers, a potential area of agreement that Republicans welcomed, saying it was one of their ideas.

"Going forward, we're going to have to make some additional very tough decisions that this town has put off for a very long time. And that's what this upcoming week is really about," Obama said as he announced the pay freeze. "My hope is that, starting today, we can begin a bipartisan conversation about our future, because we face challenges that will require the cooperation of Democrats, Republicans and independents. Everybody is going to have to cooperate. We can't afford to fall back onto the same old ideologies or the same stale sound bites."

With just a month of business left until the Christmas recess, the White House is eager to reach agreement on tax cuts to move forward on the president's other goals, especially the New START treaty with Russia and the extension of some stimulus funds.

But Democrats have not yet agreed on a tax plan. One group, led by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), is pressing Obama to forge a compromise that would extend the Bush-era tax cuts for household income up to $1 million. Other Democrats want to limit the extension to household income of $250,000 or less. Republicans have demanded an extension for all income levels.

Obama is believed to favor a two- or three-year extension of all the tax cuts, accompanied by an extension of unemployment benefits.

Schumer led a small delegation to the White House on Monday to urge Obama to support his proposal, which would allow Democrats to make the claim that they are raising taxes on millionaires to pay down the deficit.

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