House and Senate leaders from both parties sat down Tuesday for their first postelection meeting with President Barack Obama in an atmosphere charged with tension over taxes and a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
Republicans set the tone for the session early, declaring steadfast opposition to any tax increases when the current Bush era tax cuts expire at the end of the year. Obama has said he would oppose a permanent extension of the tax cuts for taxpayers earning more than $200,000 as individuals and $250,000 as couples.
At the same time a couple of Republican senators signaled possible movement on the START treaty which would reduce nuclear weapons arsenals in the U.S. and Russia. Obama has made approval of the treaty this year a top national security goal.
The midmorning meeting came a day after Obama, pre-empting the Republicans, announced he was proposing to freeze the salaries of some 2 million federal workers for the next two years. The White House talks Tuesday were seen as an opportunity for the two parties to size up each other even as they struggle for common ground on taxes, START and other issues on the legislative agenda before Congress adjourns for the year.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, House GOP Whip Eric Cantor said his party wants to “make sure no one gets a tax hike while we’re trying to create jobs in the private sector.”
And Senate minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., delivered a stinging critique of Democratic suggestions to only increase taxes on taxpayers with incomes of more than $1 million.
“It turns out this figure has no economic justification whatsoever,” McConnell said. “Nowhere will you find a study or survey which indicates that raising taxes on small businesses with over $1 million in income will create jobs or help spur the economy.”
Tuesday’s meeting, scheduled for one hour, was the first formal sitdown among the president and the bipartisan leadership since the GOP recaptured control of the House and narrowed the Democratic majority in the Senate in the Nov. 2 elections. Also scheduled to attend the meeting were Vice President Joe Biden, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and White House budget director Jacob Lew.
The meeting comes as a new Associated Press-CNBC Poll shows most people oppose extending expiring tax cuts for the richest Americans. Just 34 percent want to renew tax cuts for everyone; 50 percent prefer extending the reductions only for those earning under $250,000 a year; and 14 percent want to end them for all.
On START, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, one of the Republicans invited to Tuesday’s meeting, has rejected the administration’s assertion that the treaty must be dealt with during the lame-duck session, saying the Senate has more pressing issues to deal with.
But Sen. John McCain appeared to leave open the possibility of working with the White House, saying he still hoped progress could be made this year.
“I believe that we could move forward with the START treaty and satisfy Sen. Kyl’s concerns and mine about missile defense and others,” McCain said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, who earlier this month raised concerns about the treaty’s impact on the former Soviet satellite nations, told reporters, “I’d like to get it done, but in my conscience I want to feel it’s the right thing to do.”
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., was asked about the latest wrinkle, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s warning that a new arms race will erupt if Russian can’t agree with the West about a joint European missile defense program.
“I’m open-minded and this is one of the issues I’ll raise with the State Department briefing teams coming up to talk to me,” he said.
Obama said Monday he hopes Tuesday’s White House session “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 on the issues that define not only these times but our future.”
Obama’s work, however, is not limited to building new relationships with Republicans. Democratic allies led by labor decried his federal pay freeze proposal, which would require congressional approval. Moreover, Obama has tried to link arms with Republicans by calling for a moratorium on earmarks, the targeted spending measures that lawmakers insert into legislation. But on Tuesday, most Democrats and a handful of Republicans blocked such an effort in the Senate.
And while Democrats have generally supported ratifying the treaty with Russia, Obama may have to apply some pressure to get his own party’s leaders to hold a vote.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was cautious when speaking to reporters earlier this month, saying, “We’re going to do our best to get a vote on the START treaty.”
Despite their political gains, Republicans approached Tuesday’s session with some apprehension. Presidents typically gain a public relations advantage by inviting leaders of the opposition party to the White House.
Many Republicans still bristle at the health care summit that Obama called last February. Democrats got more time to make their case than Republicans, and the session yielded no Democratic compromises.
Cantor accused Obama of engaging in “class warfare.” ”This country is about making sure everyone has a fair shot,” he said in an interview.