WASHINGTON — Heralding a new era of divided government, President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans pledged warily to seek common ground on tax cuts and reduced spending Tuesday in their first meeting since tumultuous midterm elections.
Obama also made a strong plea to Senate Republicans to permit ratification of a new arms control treaty with Russia by year's end, raising the issue first in a session in the White House's Roosevelt Room and then in a follow-up meeting without aides present, officials said.
No substantive agreements on essential year-end legislation emerged from the session, and none had been expected. Instead, the meeting was a classic capital blend of substance and style, offering a chance for Obama, House Speaker-in-waiting John Boehner and Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell to become more comfortable in one another's presence despite their obvious policy differences and history of mutual distrust.
"The American people did not vote for gridlock. They didn't vote for unyielding partisanship. They're demanding cooperation and they're demanding progress," the president told reporters, referring to elections that gave the GOP control of the House and a stronger say in the Senate.
Back at the Capitol after the meeting, Boehner said, "I think that spending more time will help us find some common ground," and he credited Obama with opening the session by saying he had not reached out enough in the past to Republican leaders.
Even so, there was little or no attempt to minimize the differences that divided the parties during the election campaign, including a disagreement on legislation to extend Bush-era tax cuts due to expire at year's end.
"It is the view of 100 percent of Senate Republicans, and a number of Senate Democrats as well ... that we ought to treat all taxpayers the same," McConnell told reporters.
Obama and most Democrats, by contrast, want to extend existing tax cuts to all workers with family incomes under $250,000 but allow them to expire for those at higher levels.
In a sign of urgency, Obama and leaders of both parties appointed a small group to begin talks immediately on resolving the issue so lawmakers can approve a compromise before wrapping up their work. The White House said late Tuesday that the group would meet for the first time Wednesday.
One possible compromise is for Democrats to agree to extend the tax cuts for all, and for Republicans to drop their insistence that the lower tax rates be made permanent. An extension for a few years would allow both sides to claim victory while limiting the cost to the government at a time when deficit reduction is a major priority of both parties.
Officials said there was relatively little discussion of another major issue confronting lawmakers in the current postelection session, the need for a new spending bill so the government can run without interruption. Current spending authority expires on Dec. 3, and majority Democrats intend to extend that to Dec. 17.
The next steps are unclear, though, and a struggle is possible between Democrats who are about to lose their majority in the House, and Republicans who won the election with a call for significant spending cuts.
In addition, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said it was important for Congress to pass an extension of unemployment benefits before heading home, officials said, adding that Obama concurred.
The president has called repeatedly in recent days for the Senate to ratify the proposed new START treaty with Russia. In remarks to reporters, he called it essential for the national security and said it would permit the United States to "monitor Russia's nuclear arsenal, reduce our nuclear weapons and strengthen our relationship with Russia."
Ratification requires a two-thirds vote, meaning Republican support is essential. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the GOP point man on the issue, said in the meeting that Democrats should quickly resolve the tax and spending issues to allow time for a debate on the treaty. Kyl did not say whether he intended to vote for or against the pact, according to officials.
He and other Republicans have been involved in intensive negotiations with administration officials and Senate Democrats over terms of accompanying legislation covering the modernization and security of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The treaty itself calls for destruction of hundreds of old nuclear weapons, relics of the Cold War, and a system for each country to verify the other has reduced its stockpile as promised.
The timetable Kyl laid out would leave little if any time for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to seek passage of other items on the Democratic list, including an end to the Pentagon's policy of discharging openly gay servicemen and servicewomen.
And several hours later, officials disclosed that the Senate GOP leadership had collected signatures on a letter vowing to block action on any bills unrelated to tax cuts or government spending, with the exception of the treaty.
The sternest test for Obama and the congressional Republicans will come after the GOP takes power in the House in January and begins trying to follow through on its pledge to cut spending deeply, limit the scope of government and repeal the president's cherished health care legislation.
Both sides mentioned the obvious in post-meeting remarks to reporters.
"You know, there's a difference – we have Democrats – there's a reason why we have Democrats and Republicans. We believe in different things about the appropriate role of the federal government," said Boehner.
Obama put it this way: "We have two parties for a reason. There are real philosophical differences, deeply held principles to which each party holds."
Beneath the talk of possible cooperation, political maneuvering was evident from beginning to end. "We had a very nice meeting today," Boehner said. "Of course, we've had a lot of very nice meetings. The question is, can we find the common ground the American people expect us to find."
Obama went from the meeting to an appearance with White House reporters, where he provided his account of what had happened. Republicans, back at the Capitol, offered their impressions.
And a day earlier, Obama announced he wanted lawmakers to impose a two-year pay freeze on roughly 2 million federal workers, leaving Republicans to grumble he had stolen one of their ideas without crediting them.
As for the Republicans, Boehner and McConnell greeted the president a few hours before their talks with an op-ed article in the Washington Post.
"Despite what some Democrats in Congress have suggested, voters did not signal they wanted more cooperation on the Democrats' big-government policies that most Americans oppose," they wrote.