As another era of divided government looms over Washington, President Obama and congressional leaders met at the White House today for a much-publicized summit aimed at finding common ground. Afterward, both sides hailed the discussion.
“I just want to say I thought it was a productive meeting. I 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 understands that Americans want us to focus on their jobs, not ours,” Obama said in a brief statement after the session.
For his part, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said they “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 midterm 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 White House’s Roosevelt Room—a fittingly bipartisan setting named after both Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, and Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat.
A panoply of issues was discussed, including the extension of the Bush tax cuts (due to expire at the end of the year), the New START nuclear treaty with Russia, and 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., 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 Democratic Conference Chairman James 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 accountable.”
The president declared that he wanted to ensure before the lame-duck session ended 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 designed to break the impasse, he appointed Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner—who were in attendance at the meeting—to negotiate with both parties in an effort to determine a tax package that can win wide support.
Obama said he also wanted to work to preserve other tax breaks, including those for college tuition and businesses that hire the unemployed.
Turning to the subject of the New START nuclear pact, the president said that he urged passage of the treaty in the meeting. Noting that the accord has bipartisan support, he said: “We need to get it done.”
McConnell, however, said that other issues should take precedence over the treaty with Russia, and that its ratification should be delayed until those are resolved.
“There was some discussion of [New 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 let’s take care of the tax issue, let’s 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.”
Another topic during the meeting was the deficit, an issue that animated the tea party and much of the electorate during the midterm campaign. Obama noted that the subject was broached, as well as the pending work of the bipartisan panel he appointed to propose ways to reduce the nation’s debt, but did not offer any specifics about the discussion.
Despite the proclaimed bonhomie of the meeting, Obama decried what he called the “hyperpartisan” atmosphere in Washington. He said that there was support in the room for follow-up meetings, and that the possibility of such gatherings was discussed, including one at Camp David. (According to the president, Reid declared that he’d never been to Camp David.)
In remarks after the meeting, Boehner, Cantor, and McConnell also praised the session.
Commenting on the bipartisan effort, Boehner said that “the more time that we spend together, the more we can find common ground because the American people expect that.”
Cantor, who is expected to become House majority leader in January, said that Obama had “put his best foot forward.” The Virginian said he was “pleased” that the president understood that Washington needs to go in a “new direction.” He added that Obama has promised to hold a series of meetings with Republicans on Capitol Hill.
While McConnell pointed out the continuing differences concerning the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, saying that he didn’t want to see tax rates “bifurcated,” he added that “there’s no reason we can’t find areas of agreement.”
David Axelrod, the president’s top political advisor, also sat in on the meeting with congressional leaders. “I’m not a Pollyanna,” he said, “but it went about as well as it could.”
Given the brevity of today’s meeting and the thorny issues at hand, no one went to the Roosevelt Room predicting major breakthroughs. But there was hope expressed from all involved 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,” a nod to 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.
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 them was that it mitigated any possibility of information being leaked during the proceedings.
Aamer Madhani, Rebecca Kaplan, and Marc Ambinder contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the November 30, 2010, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.