WASHINGTON — House and Senate leaders from both parties sat down Tuesday for their first postelection meeting with President Barack Obama in an atmosphere charged with tension over taxes and a new nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
Republicans promptly tried to set the tone for the session, saying they remain steadfastly opposed to any tax increases when the current Bush era tax cuts expire at the end of the year. Obama has said he would oppose a permanent extension of the tax cuts for taxpayers earning more than $200,000 as individuals and $250,000 as couples.
The midmorning meeting came a day after Obama, pre-empting the Republicans, announced he was proposing to freeze the salaries of some 2 million federal workers for the next two years. The White House talks Tuesday were seen as an opportunity for the two parties to size up each other as they struggle for common ground on taxes and the START treaty — two prominent topics on the legislative agenda before Congress adjourns for the year. [Read the U.S. News debate: Should the United States ratify the New START Treaty? ]
Speaking ahead of the meeting, House GOP Whip Eric Cantor said his party wants to "make sure no one gets a tax hike while we're trying to create jobs in the private sector."
"It turns out this figure has no economic justification whatsoever," McConnell said. "Nowhere will you find a study or survey which indicates that raising taxes on small businesses with over $1 million in income will create jobs or help spur the economy."
Tuesday's meeting, scheduled for one hour, was the first formal sitdown among the president and the bipartisan leadership since the GOP recaptured control of the House and narrowed the Democratic majority in the Senate in the Nov. 2 elections. Also attending the meeting were Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and White House budget director Jacob Lew.
The meeting comes as a new Associated Press-CNBC Poll shows most people oppose extending expiring tax cuts for the richest Americans. Just 34 percent want to renew tax cuts for everyone; 50 percent prefer extending the reductions only for those earning under $250,000 a year; and 14 percent want to end them for all.
The president has cast the meeting as one focused not only on the economy, but also national security, and is strongly emphasizing the need for the Senate to ratify the START treaty with Russia.
Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, one of the Republicans invited to Tuesday's meeting, has rejected the administration's assertion that the treaty must be dealt with during the lame-duck session, saying the Senate has more pressing issues to deal with.
But Sen. John McCain appeared to leave open the possibility of working with the White House on START, saying he still hoped progress could be made this year.
"I believe that we could move forward with the START treaty and satisfy Sen. Kyl's concerns and mine about missile defense and others," McCain said on ABC's "Good Morning America." [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the GOP.]
Obama's meeting with House and Senate leaders from both parties — eight altogether — will help define the interaction between the White House and a divided Congress for the next two years.
Obama said Monday he hopes the session "will mark a first step toward a new and productive working relationship, because we now have a shared responsibility to deliver for the American people on the issues that define not only these times but our future."
Despite their political gains, Republicans approached Tuesday's session with some apprehension. Presidents typically gain a public relations advantage by inviting leaders of the opposition party to the White House.
Many Republicans still bristle at the healthcare summit that Obama called last February. Democrats got more time to make their case than Republicans, and the session yielded no Democratic compromises. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Democrats.]