WASHINGTON, Nov. 30, 2010 -- President Obama and Republican leaders hailed today's White House bipartisan summit as productive and a positive step forward. But no firm agreement was reached on extending tax cuts for Americans or ratifying the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the top two items on the agenda.
"Today we had the beginning of a new dialogue that I hope -- and I'm sure most Americans hope -- will help break through the noise and help produce gains," the president said after the meeting. "And as we all agreed, that should begin today because there's some things we need to get done in the weeks before Congress leaves town for the holidays."
Obama announced that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Director of the Office of Management and Budget, Jack Lew would work with representatives from each party to come up with a solution on extending the tax cuts.
Republicans support extending Bush-era tax cuts for all Americans, while the president and Democrats, citing the burden on the deficit of across-the-board tax cuts, say that extension should not apply to the wealthy.
The GOP leadership also hailed the meeting as a positive one, but questions remain as to whether it will translate into concrete steps moving forward.
"We had a very nice meeting today. Of course, we've had a lot of very nice meetings," said incoming House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "The question is, can we find the common ground that the American people expect us to find?"
Tax cuts and ratification of the START treaty topped the agenda at the bipartisan summit, the first such meeting since Democrats lost the House and several seats in the Senate in the midterm elections.
The president said he also called on lawmakers to extend unemployment benefits that expired today, and the attendees also discussed tax credits for college tutiton, tax breaks for working families and a tax cut for businesses that hire unemployed workers.
"None of this is going to be easy. We have two parties for a reason. There are real philosophical differences, deeply held principles to which each party holds," the president said. "Although the atmosphere in today's meeting was extremely civil, there's no doubt that those differences are going to remain no matter how many meetings we have. And the truth is, there will always be a political incentive against working together, particularly in the current hyperpartisan climate."
But, he added, "We understand these aren't times for us to be playing games. ... I think there was a sincere effort on the part of everybody involved to commit to work together and try to solve the problems."
The next meeting between Obama and congressional leaders will be at Camp David in January.
Obama: White House Bipartisan Summit Productive
Even before the start of the meeting, prospects for compromise were elusive.
Republican leaders, in an op-ed in the Washington Post, presented an ultimatum to the White House, painting the extension of tax cuts as the battleground for compromise.
"The White House and Democratic leaders in Congress first will have to prioritize. It's time to choose struggling middle-class families and small businesses over the demands of the liberal base. It's time to get serious," wrote incoming Speaker of the House John Boehner, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Calling Democrats' policy agenda of the past two years "misplaced priorities," the Republican leaders said their win in the elections represented a "wholesale rejection" of such policies. They also rejected the lame duck Congress' agenda.
"While Americans have been asking 'where are the jobs?' for more than two years, our friends across the aisle have clung for too long to the liberal wish list, including a job-killing health-care law, a cap-and-trade national energy tax and an out-of-control spending spree," Boehner and McConnell wrote.
"Their actual legislative plan for the rest of the lame-duck session is to focus on anything but jobs," they wrote.
Obama also sought to push the ratification of the nuclear treaty he struck with Russia earlier this year. The treaty has been stymied in the Senate because of objections from some Republican lawmakers.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who is leading that pack, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has packed the Senate legislative agenda with too many items, including the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal and the Dream Act, leaving little time for senators to consider the START treaty.
"The unanimous view of Senate Republicans is let's take care of the tax issue," Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said today. "Let's take care of how we're going to fund the government for the next 10 months and then if there's time left for other matters, it will be up to the Majority Leader Sen. Reid to decide whether we turn to other things before we adjourn for the year."
The White House had originally envisioned a series of meetings and dinners in the residence, but scheduling conflicts led to a much shorter meeting.
In addition to the president and Republican and Democratic House and Senate leaders, Vice President Joe Biden, Geithner and Lew also attended the meeting.