House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio (center) looks on as President Obama talks to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland in this file photo. Tuesday's White House meeting offers a chance for two sides to move beyond heated campaign rhetoric.
House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio (center) looks on as President Obama talks to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland in this file photo. Tuesday's White House meeting offers a chance for two sides to move beyond heated campaign rhetoric. Charles Dharapak/AP
On the eve of his White House summit with congressional leaders, President Obama announced a two-year pay freeze for civilian government workers and warned the newly empowered GOP not to interpret its election success as a mandate.
"The most important contest of our time is not the contest between Democrats and Republicans," Obama said in televised remarks Monday. "It's between America and our economic competitors all around the world."
He is scheduled to meet at the White House at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday with Republican leaders including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and House speaker-in-waiting John Boehner, as well as Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Topping the official agenda are the Bush-era tax cuts that are set to expire in the current lame-duck congressional session, and the ratification of a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.
But the sit-down is really more about calming the heated rhetoric of the campaign trail, where Obama referred to congressional Republicans as "enemies" and McConnell and Boehner pledged to block any White House initiative going into the 2012 campaign.
In fact, the GOP leaders rebuffed the president's first post-election invitation, suggesting that they were too busy to meet just then with the commander in chief.
"There is a lot of distrust on both sides," says Doug Holtz-Eakin, who was director of the Congressional Budget Office during the George W. Bush administration.
"Tomorrow is meant to be about lowering that distrust — to look around the room and see who brought a brick, who brought a weapon," he said, half jokingly. "It's about the ability of these different leaders to understand each other."
The president in his comments Monday urged his Capitol Hill opponents to work with him in a "cooperative and serious way," singling out spending cuts as a paramount issue, and said it would be unwise to assume that Americans "prefer one way of thinking over another."
"My hope is that tomorrow's meeting will mark a first step toward a new and productive working relationship, because we now have a shared responsibility to deliver for the American people," Obama said, identifying national security and the economy as the "fundamental challenges."
In an op-ed published in The Washington Post Tuesday, McConnell and Boehner said that Republicans are also ready to focus on the economy. But they offered their own interpretation of last month's election results.
"Republicans got the message voters have been delivering for more than a year," McConnell and Boehner wrote in the Post. "That's why we made a pledge to America to cut spending, rein in government, and permanently extend the current tax rates so small-business owners won't get hit with a massive tax hike at the end of December. That's what Americans want. And that's the message Republicans will bring to the meeting today."
In addition to his sit-down with the leaders, the president's bipartisan deficit reduction commission is expected to vote Tuesday on its tough-love recommendations to begin to put the nation's financial house in order.
Proposals released in early November by commission co-chairmen Democrat Erskine Bowles and former GOP Sen. Alan Simpson called for dramatic spending cuts across the government, the elimination of tax breaks including deductions for mortgage interest, and reining in entitlement programs like Social Security. The coming days, the president said, will be about "tough decisions this town has put off a very long time."
Democratic leaders, including Pelosi, have said they found many of the commission's major recommendations unacceptable. The president appeared careful to characterize any suggestions that emerge as a starting point for conversation. What emerges from the 18-member deficit commission should "spark a serious and long overdue conversation in this town," he said.
In a statement, Boehner said he welcomed the president's move to freeze federal pay and noted that he had suggested the same earlier this month.
Bipartisanship 'May Not Be Driving The Conversation'
Republicans, who dramatically recaptured the House on Nov. 2 and increased their numbers in the Senate, may disagree with Obama's interpretation of election results — even though surveys showed that voters expressed distaste for both parties, and for the tone in Washington.
After all, says Republican consultant Cameron Lynch, after Obama was elected in 2008 on an anti-Bush wave, "he told Republicans that 'elections have consequences.' "
"He's moved way to the left," Lynch says, "and the election showed that America is still a center-right country."
"What he's saying now echoes his campaign trail language, but in office he veered off that rhetoric," he says.
But no matter the president's intention, both Lynch and Democratic strategists say the faithful of both parties may not allow their leaders — be it Obama or Boehner or McConnell — to move toward compromise, even if it's good for the country.
"The notion of 'let's do what's best for the country' may not be driving the conversation," says Lynch, who previously worked for Republican senators Bob Dole, John Ashcroft and John McCain.
As they go into Tuesday's summit, the prospect that deals will be cut or middle ground discovered on tax cuts and nuclear treaties is remote.
Republican leaders have said they won't compromise on their position that Bush-era tax cuts for wealthy Americans should be extended, along with those for middle class taxpayers.
Obama has been under intense pressure from his party's base to make good on his campaign promise to end the tax cuts for the wealthy — those earning $250,000 or more. Democrats have been scrambling to put together proposals that would maintain middle-class tax cuts but appease those who claim that allowing the cuts for the wealthy to expire would hurt small businesses. Experts say, however, that close to 98 percent of small businesses would be unaffected if the tax cuts for those with income over $250,000 expire.
One Democratic proposal being discussed would extend tax cuts to everyone earning less than $1 million.
Most of those close to the negotiations predict that there will be a tax-extension accord in Congress after some skirmishes, and that it will amount to a temporary extension of all of the cuts.
"You'll see some message votes on other alternatives," Holtz-Eakin predicts, "but I think ultimately you'll see all the cuts extended for a period of time."
"The lesson is that each and every person who wants more revenue has to go about it through tax reform," he says.
Obama is expected to make his case Tuesday for ratification of the START nuclear arms-reduction treaty with Russia. But GOP Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, whose vote is key to START's passage, on Sunday reiterated his intention to block the measure during the lame-duck session.
His stated reason: the lack of time remaining before the session's close at the end of the year.
Better Than Last Time?
When the leaders gather Tuesday at the White House, one thing is certain: They will all be adjusting to Washington's new order.
The president will likely not deliver an encore performance of what Boehner characterized as a table-slapping, finger-wagging "lecture" during a White House meeting on jobs with Republican leadership earlier this year.
But the president now faces a divided Congress. And Boehner finds himself in the position of managing a caucus studded with anti-Washington, small-government newcomers. Both may find opportunity in areas where compromise can be reached — from education to energy.
Republicans have to play ball now, the president noted.
"We're going to have to budge on some deeply held positions and compromise for the good of the country," he said. "We're going to have to set aside the politics of the moment to make progress for the long term."
Tuesday's meeting is more about setting tone than deciding policy. But the American people may very well get a glimpse of whether Obama and his adversaries start a conversation the country desperately needs.