WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and top Republican congressional leaders — who have had a rocky relationship for nearly two years — insisted Tuesday that they got the midterm election message from voters and began searching immediately for a way to extend Bush-era tax cuts.
The cuts expire on Dec. 31. Obama and Democratic congressional leaders want them extended only for individuals earning less than $200,000 a year and couples making less than $250,000 a year. Republicans want the breaks to continue for everyone.
Obama met for about two hours Tuesday with congressional leaders from both parties at the White House, the first time they've met since Republicans won control of the House of Representatives and gained six Senate seats on Nov. 2. The tax-cut extension issue dominated a discussion that also covered expiring unemployment benefits, nuclear arms control and gays in the military.
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.
For the final 35 minutes of the meeting, Obama and congressional leaders asked their staffs to leave the room, a step meant to encourage candor.
The two sides emerged full of praise for each other and agreed to immediate Capitol Hill tax cut negotiations between Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, budget director Jacob Lew and four key members of Congress.
The American people are "demanding cooperation, and they're demanding progress," Obama said after the meeting. "And they'll hold all of us, and I mean all of us, accountable for it." He said he was "very encouraged by the fact that there was broad recognition of that fact in the room."
Rep. Boehner, R-Ohio, struck a similar note, saying, "I am optimistic" about prospects for future cooperation. He said Obama acknowledged that "he hadn't spent as much time with us, reaching out and talking to us, and committed to do so."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., concurred, calling the session "a very, very efficient, very, very productive meeting."
They were all heeding a strong message from the American public to work together and help revive the ailing economy.
Republicans insist that because of their success on Nov. 2, the public endorsed their view that all Bush-era cuts be extended, including for the wealthy. However, a McClatchy-Marist poll taken Nov. 15-18 showed that 51 percent want tax cuts extended only for those earning less than $250,000, while 45 percent wanted all the cuts extended. The poll had an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Neither side has the votes to prevail in the current Congress, where Democrats control both houses but lack 60 Senate votes needed to cut off debate. If Congress doesn't act, income tax rates as well as taxes on capital gains and dividends would revert to Clinton-era levels effective Jan. 1.
According to White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, there was "strong agreement" at Tuesday's meeting that the cuts shouldn't be allowed to expire.
Tuesday's meeting included Geithner; Lew; Vice President Joe Biden; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; and other congressional leaders.
Obama also made a strong plea to Senate Republicans to permit ratification of a new arms control treaty with Russia by year's end.
Ratification of the START treaty 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.
The treaty 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.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.