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.
"The million-dollar divide creates a very bright line and makes it very clear: You're either supporting multimillionaires and billionaires or you're supporting the middle class," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).
Republicans said they would look for signals that the president has digested his party's landslide losses on Nov. 2 and is willing to change his approach to passing legislation.
Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said the incoming speaker would urge Obama to support a permanent extension of the expiring tax cuts, along with immediate cuts in federal spending, starting with pending legislation that Congress must approve by the end of the year to keep the government operating. House GOP leaders advocate reductions to fiscal 2008 levels, a move that would force agencies to make deep budget cuts immediately.
"We hope the president is listening to the American people and is willing to work with us on their priorities," said Steel.
Also up for discussion was the increasingly contentious U.S.-Russia New START treaty. The president has said that ratifying the nuclear arms reduction pact - which requires 67 votes in the Senate - is a top priority. But one of the participants at Tuesday's meeting was Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the No. 2 Senate Republican and Obama's chief adversary on the matter. Kyl was expected to insist that the Senate delay a vote on the treaty until January, when the new Congress is sworn in.
Staff writer Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.