For Obama and GOP leaders, just meeting is a bipartisan accomplishment

President Obama met with GOP leaders at the White House Tuesday. The gathering appeared long enough for little else but pleasantries – though, in the current climate, that's no small thing.

Pete Souza/Newscom
President Obama talks with Rep. Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia at the conclusion of a meeting with Republican and Democratic congressional leadership in the White House Tuesday. Listening at right are Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, and Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada.

The much anticipated White House meeting between President Obama and bipartisan congressional leaders has finally taken place. The president called it “productive.” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called it “a useful and frank discussion.” Both Mr. Obama and likely new House speaker John Boehner (R) spoke of finding common ground.

Over the hour, there seemed to be enough time just to air the various topics of concern, starting with the soon-to-expire Bush-era tax cuts and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia that Obama wants ratified before Congress adjourns.

On Topic A, taxes, Obama appointed his Treasury secretary and budget director to negotiate with the congressional Republicans to break through what he called a “logjam” on the issue before the end of the year, when tax rates are scheduled to rise. Republicans want to extend the tax cuts permanently at all levels. The Democrats want to retain only those for families making up to $250,000.

“There was broad agreement that we need to work to get that resolved before the end of the year,” Obama said. But, he added, “there's still differences about how to get there.”

On the START treaty, which needs to be ratified by the Senate to go into effect, Obama has faced a significant GOP roadblock, which continued into Tuesday’s meeting. Senator McConnell argued afterward that other matters needed to be settled first, including the tax issue and funding to keep the federal government operational. He said all 42 Senate Republicans agreed they could consider the treaty “if there’s time left” after addressing the other issues.

If the START debate is pushed into the new Congress, Obama will need more Republican votes than he would now, since the Democrats lost six Senate seats in the midterms.

No cocktails and dinner, please

Given the atmosphere of partisan rancor infusing Washington, just having the meeting at all was an accomplishment. Obama’s original offer – a meeting, cocktails, dinner in the White House residence on Nov. 18 – didn’t fly with the Republicans. They cited a scheduling conflict. Democrats cried “snub.” Whatever the case, the Tuesday meeting was just an hour, in the morning, in the White House’s Roosevelt Room.

But it’s a start, both sides agreed, four weeks after the political earthquake of the Nov. 2 midterm elections, when the Republicans swept the Democrats out of power in the House and cut into their Senate majority. During the meeting, Obama accepted some blame for the lack of bipartisan outreach during the last two years, a point the No. 2 House Republican, Eric Cantor of Virginia, welcomed.

Still, despite all the talk of a fresh start, Obama acknowledged the elephant in the room – what he called “the current hyper-partisan climate.”

“There are always those who argue that the best strategy is simply to try to defeat your opposition, instead of working with them,” the president said.

He needed look no further than McConnell to see someone whose stated goal is to make sure Obama does not win a second term. And in a Washington Post opinion piece published Tuesday by McConnell and Boehner, the rhetoric seemed distinctly McConnell-esque.

The column – titled “Where we and Democrats can work together” – called on the White House and Democratic leaders to “prioritize.”

“It's time to choose struggling middle-class families and small businesses over the demands of the liberal base,” the GOP leaders wrote. “It's time to get serious.”

Each side may need the other

In fact, both parties face pressures from their political bases, perhaps the Republicans even more than the Democrats, as the energized tea party movement watches to see what the GOP can deliver with its new power.

William Galston, a veteran of the Clinton White House who saw up close how the president regrouped after the Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, expected the “polite noises” that came out of Tuesday’s meeting. Public opinion clearly favors bipartisanship and collegiality.

But, as Obama himself noted, there are strong forces at play pushing the parties in opposite directions. Mr. Galston, now a scholar at the Brookings Institution, sees the next Congress unfolding in two phases.

“The first will be quite confrontational; both sides will take their best swings at each other,” Galston says. “Eventually – and I can’t tell you when eventually is, but I wouldn’t expect it to be any later than the end of calendar 2011 – the two sides will recognize that they’re taking substantial political risks by not making a better public effort to come together.”

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