WASHINGTON — Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress emerged from their first budget meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House at midday Friday and, in a rare show of bipartisan bonhomie, jointly expressed confidence that the two parties will reach an agreement before the end of the year to avert economy-rattling tax increases and across-the-board spending cuts.
The four leaders — two Republicans, House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate minority leader; and two Democrats, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader — politely took turns at a microphone outside the West Wing, addressing each other by first names and describing the roughly 90-minute session as constructive.
“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,” Reid said.
“This isn’t the first time that we’ve dealt with these issues,” he added. “We feel we understand what the problem is. And we felt very — I feel very good about what we were able to talk about in there. We have the cornerstones of being able to work something out. We’re both going to have to give up some of the things that we know are a problem.”
Boehner said he outlined a framework for overhauling the tax code and spending programs that is “consistent with the president’s call for a fair and balanced approach.”
“To show our seriousness,” he added, “we put revenue on the table as long as it’s accompanied by significant spending cuts.”
McConnell made plain that Republicans were talking about spending for the entitlement programs, chiefly Medicare and Medicaid, which are growing fast as the population ages and, along with military spending, are squeezing everything else in the federal budget. Republican senators, McConnell said, “fully understand that you can’t save the country until you have entitlement programs that fit the demographics of the changing America in the coming years.”
“We’re prepared to put revenues on the table,” he added, “provided we fix the real problem, even though most of my members, I think without exception, believe that we’re in the dilemma we’re in not because we tax too little but because we spend too much.”
Pelosi, whose House Democratic colleagues include many liberals who resist significant changes to entitlement spending, said: “We understand our responsibility here. We understand that it has to be about cuts, it has to be about revenue, it has to be about growth, it has to be about the future.”
She added, “I feel confident that a solution may be in sight.”
With Obama in the Roosevelt Room, the leaders made up the same cast who bitterly fought in 2011, then eventually agreed to nearly $1 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years but deadlocked on the roughly $4 trillion “grand bargain” both sides say the country needs.
Obama demands that it include up to $1.6 trillion in tax increases for the wealthy, while Republicans favor less in revenue but big cost-saving changes to the fast-growing entitlement programs Medicare and Medicaid.
The two sides met after a week of post-election, pre-bargaining positioning. Obama, after making an issue of it in his re-election campaign, believes he has a mandate to insist on extending the Bush-era tax cuts, which otherwise expire Dec. 31, but not for income of $250,000 and above for couples and $200,000 for individuals.
More broadly, the outcome of the budget talks will go a long way to defining his leverage for a second term, both in terms of his influence and the resources available to him to press his agenda.
The president “will not sign, under any circumstances, an extension of tax cuts for the top 2 percent of American earners,” his spokesman, Jay Carney, told reporters Thursday.
“We have to make sure that taxes don’t go up on the middle class, that the economy remains strong,” Obama said as the meeting began.
“That’s an agenda that Democrats and Republicans and independents, people all across the country share,” he said. “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.”MORE IN Wire News
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