President Obama and Republican leaders emerged from a meeting at the White House Tuesday no closer to an agreement on whether to extend all of the Bush era tax cuts before the end of the year, or whether to only extend cuts for those making less than $250,000 a year.
So the president appointed an unofficial panel to try to find common ground in the next few days and weeks. Obama designated Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Budget Director Jack Lew to be his representatives in meetings with Republican lawmakers to try to find a compromise before the cuts expire on Dec. 31.
Obama and Republican leaders said their first meeting together since the Nov. 2 midterm election was marked by a spirit of bipartisanship, but both sides did not budge from their positions. Republicans want cuts for all tax brackets extended, while Obama wants to let the current rate for the top bracket go up, as it is currently scheduled to do.
Obama called the meeting “extremely civil.” Ohio Republican John Boehner, the soon-to-be Speaker of the House, said they had a “very frank conversation.” Yet both said their disagreement over the tax cuts was as intractable as it was before they sat down.
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, said it was “revealing” that the House Democratic leadership is “ready to go and get the job done” on tax cuts, and indicated that the problem will be in getting agreement from the “other side of the Capitol.”
The president struck one somewhat pessimistic note, remarking that fundamental philosophical disagreements about government and governance will never go away: “Although the atmosphere of today’s meeting was extremely civil, there’s no doubt that those differences are going to remain no matter how many meetings we have.”
Boehner said something similar.
“We believe different things about the appropriate role of the federal government. But having said that, the more time that we do spend together we can find the common ground, because the American people expect us to come here and work on their behalf,” he said.
Cantor made one dig, saying that he was “encouraged by the president’s remarks regarding his perhaps not having reached out enough to us in the last session.” He said Obama pledged to do better.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who was in the meeting, said afterward that the president had in fact admitted shortcomings. “The president acknowledged that he needed to do better, and acknowledged rightly that he will do his part,” he told reporters. He also said that Republicans made no similar admission.
Obama himself appeared to be lecturing the GOP about political gamesmanship regarding attempts to influence the public perception of the meeting. Republicans announced by e-mail, just as the 10:30 a.m. meeting started, that they would be speaking to the press at 12:30 p.m., 10 minutes after Obama’s post-meeting comments were scheduled to begin.
Ultimately, the meeting ran until 12:30 or so, and Obama did not appear at the microphones in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building until Boehner, Cantor and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had spoken to reporters back on Capitol Hill. Their comments were carried live on cable TV, and as soon as they finished, the president strode to the lectern on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“A lot of times coming out of these meetings both sides claim they want to work together but try to paint the opponent as unyielding and unwilling to cooperate. Both sides come to the table, they read their talking points, then they head out to the microphones trying to win the news cycle instead of solving problems. Then it becomes just another move in the old Washington game,” Obama said.
“But I think there was recognition today that that’s a game we cannot afford,” he added, noting that no staff attended the session in order to minimize leaks about details or who said what. “I was pleased to see several of my friends in the room say, ‘Let’s try not to duplicate, let’s try not to work the Washington spin cycle.’”
Gibbs later clarified the president’s remarks, noting that there was no staff for the last 35 minutes of the nearly two hour meeting.
Even the setting of the meeting itself spoke volumes about the wariness with which the two parties regard each other.
Originally planned as a evening meeting followed by dinner in the White House residence, the meeting was rescheduled after Republicans said they wanted to have more time to organize their caucuses, and ended up as simply a morning meeting in the Roosevelt Room.
Nonetheless, Obama said he plans to have many more meetings with the Republicans, including a session at the Camp David presidential retreat.
“We had a very nice meeting today. We’ve had a lot of very nice meetings,” Boehner said. “The question is can we find the common ground the American people expect us to find.”