Nearly two years after a newly installed President Obama ended an argument with congressional Republicans with the simple line “I won,” he goes back into a room with them on Tuesday having now lost, and badly.
The White House says the agenda for the meeting is to try to find agreement on a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia and to work toward agreement on how to handle the Bush-era tax cuts, which are due to expire at the end of this year.
But it will also be the first meeting since Mr. Obama endured what he called a “shellacking” at the polls, with his party losing more than 60 House seats and a half-dozen Senate seats. And all eyes will be on him to see how he handles having his coattails clipped.
“My hope is that tomorrow’s meeting will mark a first step towards a new and productive working relationship,” Mr. Obama said Monday as he made a first gesture, expanding on a federal pay-freeze idea Republicans proposed earlier this year. “We now have a shared responsibility to deliver for the American people on the issues that define not only these times but our future, and I hope we can do that in a cooperative and serious way.”
In January 2009, just days after his inauguration and in the middle of a debate over the size and shape of the stimulus package, Mr. Obama sought to end a dispute with Republicans by telling them, “I won.”
Republicans said they will not take that same approach into the meeting, but do think they bring to the sit-down a message from voters.
“We’ve listened to the American people: their priorities are stopping all of the tax hikes scheduled for Jan. 1, and cutting government spending to help create jobs,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for the House Republicans’ leader, Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio.
Republicans are united in pushing for an extension of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, but Democrats are divided. Some of their members want to see all the breaks extended at least temporarily, but others say the tax rates for couples earning more than $250,000 should go back to their pre-Bush levels.
Meanwhile, the nuclear arms reduction treaty has run into problems among Republicans, who say there’s not enough time to give the treaty proper consideration before the end of this year. Treaties require a two-thirds vote in the Senate to be ratified, meaning the GOP can easily scuttle the measure if it chooses.
Mr. Obama had promised regular bicameral, bipartisan leadership meetings during his tenure, but they have not been frequent.
Still, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said this will be “the first of many, many meetings over the course of the next several years.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid famously mocked the bipartisan leadership meetings hosted by President George W. Bush as heavy on presidential lecturing, and light on bipartisan deal-making.
One Republican aide said not much has changed under Mr. Obama. The aide said the current president also dominates the floor time and often offers rejoinders after congressional leaders have spoken.
“I don’t think anybody expects much of anything to come out of it. It’s an hour-long meeting with 10 politicians. It takes them that long to clear their throat,” the aide said.
Voters seem to also have low expectations, according to recent polls that show they want Republicans and Democrats to work together, but don’t expect that to happen.