By REID J. EPSTEIN | 11/16/12 11:10 AM EST Updated: 11/16/12 2:24 PM EST
President Barack Obama and Congressional leaders Friday struck a conciliatory tone and appeared to point the way to compromise as they met face-to-face for the first time in the fiscal cliff negotiations.
But the debate remains over the details, which neither House Speaker John Boehner nor Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell got into as they declared themselves open to raising new revenues after their meeting at the White House.
Boehner told reporters he’s willing to deal and sent a message to House Republicans that they must appear that they are willing to consider a compromise.
“To show our seriousness, we’ve put revenue on the table as long as its accompanied by significant spending cuts,” Boehner said. “While we’re going to continue to have revenue on the table, it’s incumbent for my colleagues to show the American people that we’re serious about cutting spending and solving our fiscal dilemma.”
McConnell, who will be negotiating with more Republican senators in the lame duck than he’ll have come January, issued a stronger caveat about forcing spending cuts.
“We’re prepared to put revenue on the table provided that we fix the real problem,” McConnell said, “even though most of my members without exception believe that we’re in the dilemma we’re in not because we tax too little but because we spend too much.”
Increasing tax rates on the wealthy was a cornerstone of Obama’s reelection campaign, and he’s said several times since the election that he remains committed to allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire at year’s end on income greater than $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples. Republicans have resisted, with an argument that’s taken shape around parsing the difference between raising rates and raising revenues.
The meeting included discussion of topic that so far has been absent from the debate: revenue targets. Top lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been hesitant to discuss how much money should be raised from reforming the tax code — a key question that will guide the contours of the upcoming negotiations.
To reach those targets, Boehner wants to “create simple mechanisms, in statute, that would achieve those revenue and spending goals. They would be in place unless or until more thoughtful policies replace them,” an aide to the speaker said.
In essence, Boehner seems to be signaling he wants another legislative trigger to ensure Congress does its job. The last trigger Congress created was the dreaded sequester.
Almost as if they were speaking from the same notes, Boehner, McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi all pronounced the meeting “constructive” — a word that also appeared in a statement from the White House press secretary released later in the day.
Obama kicked off the Friday meeting with a pledge to finally make the progress that’s been promised for months.
“I think we’re all aware that we have some urgent business to do and we’ve got to make sure that taxes don’t go up on middle-class families, that our economy remains strong, that we’re creating jobs and that’s an agenda that Democrats and Republicans and independents, people all across the country share,” Obama said, with Boehner sitting beside him, as the meeting began. “So our challenge is to make sure that we are able to cooperate together, work together, find some common ground, make some tough compromises, build some consensus to do the people’s business.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi each focused on the urgency of reaching an agreement before year’s end. Reid said the congressional leaders would work through the Thanksgiving recess and are prepared to meet Obama again when they return. A White House official said Obama and congressional leaders will meet again during the last week of November.
“We’re both going to have to give up some of the things that we know are a problem,” Reid said. “There’s no more, let’s do it some other time. We’re going to do it now. I think we feel very comfortable with each other and this isn’t something we’re going to wait until the last day of December to get it done.”
Pelosi said the deadline to reaching a deal should be “before Christmas.”
“We understand our responsibility there, we understand that it has to be about cuts,” she said. “It has to be about revenue. It has to be about growth. It has to be about the future. So as we cut investments and as we talk about revenue, we have to do so in a way that promotes growth and supports the future.”
Obama was joined by Vice President Joe Biden, chief of staff Jack Lew and National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling.
Republicans in the House and Senate are, to varying degrees, set against increasing tax rates, though some have signaled this week that they would be open to other means of collecting more revenue from the wealthy.
Obama pledged action Friday.
“What folks are looking for and I think all of us agree on this, is action,” the president said. “They want to see that we are focused on them, not focused on our politics here in Washington. So my hope is that this is going to be the beginning of a fruitful process where we’re able to come to an agreement that will reduce our deficit in a balanced way — that we will deal with some of these long-term impediments to growth, and we’re also going to be focusing on making sure that middle-class families are able to get ahead.”