Republicans, Obama Hail Bipartisan Meeting

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As another era of divided government looms over Washington, President Obama and congressional leaders met at the White House today for a much-publicized meeting aimed at finding common ground and each side hailed the discussion.

"I just want to say I thought it was a productive meeting, it thought that people came to it with a spirit of trying to work together, and I think it's a good start as we more forward. I think everybody understand that Americans want us to focus on their jobs, not ours," Obama said in a brief statement after the session. For his part, Senate Majority LeaderMitch McConnell said "we had a very frank conversation. Democrats and republicans and president understood what the American people had to say on election day very clearly."

Just four weeks after the contentious election that gave Republicans control of the House and a strengthened hand in the Senate, the leading officials of the U.S. government sat down for an hour in the Roosevelt Room of the White House--a bipartisan setting fittingly named after both Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, and Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat.

A panoply of issues was discussed including extension of the Bush tax cuts due to expire at the end of the year, the START nuclear treaty with Russia, reining in the federal deficit.

The meeting included McConnell, putative House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., putative House Republican Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., as well as House Conference Chairman Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.

After the meeting, Obama made brief remarks, noting "we are Americans first and we share responsibility for the stewardship of our nation." He warned that "the American people" did not vote for gridlock and that they would "hold all parties accountible."

He declared that before the lame-duck session ended he wanted to insure that taxes would not be raised on the middle class. Obama acknowledged the differences with Republicans who want to extend the Bush tax cuts permanently for all income earners.

The president dubbed that "unfair" and in a move to break the impasse, he appointed OMB Director Jack Lew and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner--who were in attendance at the meeting--to negotiate with both parties in an effort to find a tax package that can win wide support.

On other tax measures, including breaks for college tuition and businesses that hire the unemployed, Obama said he wanted to work to preserve those, too.

Obama said that he had urged passage of the START treaty in the meeting, and noted that the accord has bipartisan support: "We need to get it done." But McConnell said other issues should take precedence and ratification should be delayed until they were resolved.

"There was some discussion of [START ratification], and I know the president would like to go forward as soon as possible," McConnell said. "The unanimous view of senate republicans is lets take care of the tax issue, lets take care of how we're going to fund the government for next 10 months, and then if there's time left for other matters, it will be up to the majority leader, Harry Reid, whether we turn to other things"

On the deficit, an issue that animated the tea party and much of the electorate, Obama said the topic came up as well as the pending work of the bipartisan panel he appointed to propose ways to reduce the nation's debt although he did not mention any specifics.

Despite the bonhomie of the meeting, Obama decried the "hyperpartisan" atmosphere in Washington. He said that there was support in the room for follow up meetings, including one at Camp David, was discussed. (Obama said Reid declared that he'd never been to Camp David.)

In remarks after the meeting, Boehner, McConnell and Cantor also praised the session with Cantor saying the president had "put his best foot forward." McConnell said he didn't want to see tax rates "bifurcated." McConnell added that "there's no reason we can't find areas of agreement." Cantor said that he was "pleased" that the president understood that Washington needs to go in a "new direction." The Virginian went on to say that he had Obama had promised a series of meetings with Republicans on Capitol Hill. Boehner said that "the more time that we spend together the more we can find common ground because the American people expect that."

Given the brevity of today's meeting and the thorny issues at hand, neither side went to the Roosevelt Room predicting breakthroughs. But there was hope expressed on all sides that a new period of cooperation would replace the acrimony of the fall campaign and the larger partisan tone in Washington.

The gathering originally was to have been a full-day affair, complete with dinner and cocktails. Reporters had dubbed it the "Slurpee Summit," named after Obama's frequent claim during the midterm campaign that Republicans were sipping on the frozen beverage while he and fellow Democrats tried to get the broken economy out of the ditch. In a witty riposte, Boehner said he'd prefer a glass of merlot. But today's meeting was devoid of meals, alcohol or sweet treats. Scheduled to be just an hour long, it was all business.

On Monday, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said participants in today's meeting would be asked to check their mobile devices before they enter the Roosevelt Room. The request is a fairly routine one for West Wing meetings where classified material is being handled. An added bonus of relieving staffers of their mobile devices is mitigating the possibility of information being leaked during the meeting. 

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Matthew Cooper & George E. Condon Jr.

Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House), and George E. Condon Jr. is a staff writer (White House), for National Journal.

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