Obama, GOP Leaders Agree To Seek Compromise

Congressional leaders from both parties met with the president at the White House on Tuesday. It was the first time President Obama has met with top lawmakers since Republicans made huge gains in the midterm elections. There were no major breakthroughs, but both sides agreed on a path to resolve one of the biggest standoffs.

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Congressional leaders from both parties drove to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue today for a meeting at the White House. It's the first time President Obama has sat down with top lawmakers since Republicans made huge gains in the midterm elections.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports that there were no major breakthroughs but no breakdowns, either.

ARI SHAPIRO: If you're looking for an area of agreement between the White House and congressional Republicans, check their top priorities.

President BARACK OBAMA: First, we should work to make sure that taxes will not go up by thousands of dollars on hard-working, middle-class Americans come January 1st.

SHAPIRO: That's how President Obama put it. Here's how House Majority Leader-in-waiting Eric Cantor of Virginia put it.

Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia): First and foremost, take away the uncertainty around the tax hikes, or rates, that exist right now.

SHAPIRO: Both sides agree: resolve the tax cuts issue now. They still disagree over whether to extend the tax cuts for all income or only below a certain level.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky held the Republican line.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): It is the view of 100 percent of Senate Republicans and a number of Senate Democrats as well that the tax rates should not be bifurcated -in other words, that we ought to treat all taxpayers the same.

SHAPIRO: In this tax cut tug-of-war, President Obama also refused to budge. He said renewing tax cuts for income over a quarter million dollars does not make financial sense.

Pres. OBAMA: I believe, and the other Democrats who are in the room believe, that this would add an additional $700 billion to our debt in the next 10 years. And I continue to believe that it would be unwise and unfair, particularly at a time when we're contemplating deep budget cuts that require broad sacrifice.

SHAPIRO: So why do both sides express confidence that the issue will be resolved within a month? Well, for the first time today, both sides agreed on a plan to try to reach common ground. President Obama explained.

Pres. OBAMA: I appointed my Treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, and my budget director, Jack Lew, to work with representatives of both parties to break through this logjam.

SHAPIRO: More than half of the two-hour meeting was spent on the tax cuts issue, but they also talked about other subjects, including a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and a nuclear arms treaty with Russia. And the two sides tried to improve the tone in Washington.

During the campaign, President Obama accused Republicans of trying to drag the country backwards. After the election, Senator McConnell said his top priority was denying President Obama a second term.

Today, both sides cooled their rhetoric. House Speaker-in-waiting John Boehner of Ohio sounded like he might consider a round of golf with the president.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): The more time that we do spend together we can find a common ground because the American people expect us to come here and work on their behalf.

SHAPIRO: And President Obama told Republicans he needs to do a better job of reaching across the aisle.

Pres. OBAMA: The American people did not vote for gridlock. They didn't vote for unyielding partisanship. They're demanding cooperation, and they're demanding progress.

SHAPIRO: In the past, President Obama has always rejected the idea that he shut Republicans out of decision-making. Now that he has said he needs to do a better job working with Republicans, reporters asked White House spokesman Robert Gibbs why Mr. Obama didn't do a better job for the last two years. Gibbs said he doesn't want to look backward.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): We're going to enter into a period of divided government, that in order for a piece of legislation to make its way through the House and the Senate to get to his desk, it's going to go through a body that's controlled by one party and then go to a body controlled by a different party.

SHAPIRO: In other words, President Obama used to have the luxury of ignoring Republicans if he wanted to. Now, the parties are forced to drive the car together.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.

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