'Constructive' Fiscal Summit Between Obama, GOP

PHOTO: This March 20, 2012 file photo shows House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and President Barack Obama walk down the steps of the Capitol in Washington.
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"Constructive" was the buzzword of the day at the White House, following today's first fiscal cliff summit between President Obama and top congressional leaders.

President Obama and top congressional leaders on Friday convened their first "fiscal cliff" summit, seeking to avert an economically-toxic package of sweeping tax hikes and deep spending cuts that will take effect in 46 days without a bipartisan deal.

All the major players used the word to describe the conversation that lasted 70 minutes in the Roosevelt Room.

"The President and the leadership had a constructive meeting," spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement. "We will continue a constructive process to find a solution and come to a conclusion as soon as possible."

House Speaker John Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were equally sanguine, appearing together outside the West Wing in a rare joint photo-op.

"I believe that we can do this and avert the fiscal cliff that's in front of us today," said Boehner.

Reid said he felt "very good" about the tenor of the talks. "We have a cornerstones of being able to work something out," he said. "We're both going to have to give up some of the things that we know are a problem."

Both sides agreed to lay out "milestones of success so that confidence can build" among the American people, said Pelosi. "I feel confident that a solution is in sight."

Negotiators will work "during the Thanksgiving recess" with a goal of not waiting until the last day of December to reach a deal, according to Reid. The White House said senior officials would continue meeting with congressional staff over the next several days while Obama travels in Asia.

The meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House was the first face-to-face encounter between Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell since the election last week. They will be joined by Vice President Joe Biden, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Obama and Boehner sat next to each other for a brief photo opportunity before the meeting began.

"I think we're all aware that we have some urgent business to do," the president said, arguing that all sides want to avoid tax hikes on the middle class and keep the economy growing.

"My hope is that this is going to be the beginning of a fruitful process that we're going to come to an agreement that will reduce our deficit in a balanced way," he said.

There was a moment of levity during the photo opportunity when Obama wished Boehner a happy birthday. Boehner turns 63 tomorrow, but Obama joked that the negotiators wouldn't embarrass him with a cake with so many candles.

Boehner laughed at the joke.

Not all aspects of the negotiations are likely to be so lighthearted. Leaders on both sides must hammer out a plan to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion or more, identifying a mutually agreeable combination of spending cuts and potential revenue increases, through higher rates or eliminated loopholes and deductions. The plan must also address a series of expiring tax cuts or credits that touch nearly all Americans.

A deal must be reached by Dec. 31. But the parties remain particularly at odds over whether to extend Bush-era income tax cuts for all Americans or just those earning less than $200,000 a year, or $250,000 a year for families. Republicans insist tax rates should not rise for anyone, while Obama has vowed to hike rates on the top 2 percent of earners.

The stakes could not be higher: the Congressional Budget Office reported earlier this month that failure to reach a compromise -- triggering tax increases on all Americans and deep cuts to government spending on social programs and defense -- would send the U.S. economy back into recession and send unemployment skyrocketing.

Ahead of the summit, Obama has signaled that he will make a concerted push for Congress to immediately enact the one thing all sides agree on: extending Bush tax rates for families earning $250,000 or less, or 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses.

Administration officials say the president's starting point for broader negotiations will be his call for $1.6 trillion in new revenue over the next 10 years as reflected in his budget proposal and a push for "balance" in any deficit reduction plan, meaning that it would include both spending cuts as well as new tax revenue.

"The president will not sign under any circumstances an extension of tax cuts for the top two percent of American earners," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday.

Carney insisted Obama remains open to new ideas on how to raise additional revenue and close the budget gap, but added there is "no wiggle room when it comes to math. The math has to add up."

A senior aide to Boehner told ABC News the House Speaker would be focused on preserving his commitment to lower tax rates and spending cuts, though he has expressed openness to increasing overall tax revenue through reform of the tax code.

"This framework is consistent with the president's call for a 'balanced' approach," the Boehner aide said. "As a sign of our seriousness, Republicans have put revenue on the table, provided it comes from tax reform and is accompanied by spending cuts. President Obama must now follow suit by telling the American people what spending cuts he's willing to make."

It's unclear whether changes to entitlement programs -- the drivers of skyrocketing government spending and debt -- will be a focus of discussion at the first summit on fiscal negotiations. Post-election rhetoric from the parties has, to this point, generally focused only on taxes.

Still, Obama said Wednesday that he's gunning for a "big deal."

"I want a comprehensive deal. I want to see if we can, you know, at least for the foreseeable future provide certainty to businesses and the American people," he said. "But right now what I want to make sure of is, is that taxes on middle-class families don't go up, and there's a very easy way to do that. We could get that done by next week."

Boehner voiced cautious optimism for the talks this week, saying that "if you listen closely to what the president has had to say and listened closely to what I have had to say, there are no barriers here to sitting down and beginning to work through this process."

Over the past few days, Obama and top administration officials have met with key stakeholders in fiscal talks. The president hosted labor union leaders on Tuesday and a dozen CEOs and business leaders on Wednesday. A delegation from the U.S. Conference of Mayors met with Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday, while representatives of Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength met separately with other administration officials.

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