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November 29, 2010

Obama, Republicans Sound Conciliatory Note After Talks; Differences Remain

President Barack Obama, and Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Congress met on Tuesday to discuss ways to avoid political gridlock when a new Congress convenes in January. Leaders sounded a conciliatory note after the meeting, but pointed to remaining differences.

Lasting about two hours, it was the first face-to-face discussion between Obama and Republican leaders since the November midterm elections that altered the balance of power in Washington.

The president, who for months derided Republicans as sideline critics of his economic recovery policies, faces a Republican majority in the House of Representatives that is able to thwart his legislative agenda.

Obama went in to Tuesday's meeting with two key agenda items - securing an extension of tax cuts for middle class Americans, but not for the wealthy; and achieving Senate ratification of a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.

Obama provided this assessment of the talks, which included Republican and Democratic leaders from the House and Senate, Vice President Joe Biden, and key administration officials.

"The American people did not vote for gridlock; they did not vote for unyielding partisanship. They are demanding cooperation and they are demanding progress. And they will hold all of us - and I mean all of us - accountable for it. And I was very encouraged by the fact there was broad recognition of that fact in the room," he said.

Although he called the meeting productive, Obama made clear that disagreement remains on the tax cut issue, saying that Republicans continue to insist on extensions for all income levels that would require what he called an "unfair and unwise" $700 billion addition to the federal budget deficit.

To reach what the president called "sensible common ground," both sides agreed to create negotiating teams, headed on the White House side by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Obama's budget director Jack Lew. The president says he hopes for results from within days.

Speaking on Capitol Hill just after the meeting, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and House Republican Leader John Boehner, who will become Speaker of the House in January, also sought to emphasize the positive tone of the meeting.

"I think we all agreed there is no particular reason why we can't find areas of agreement and do some important things for the American people over the next two years," McConnell said.

"We had a very nice meeting today.  Of course, we have had a lot of very nice meetings.  The question is: Can we find the common ground that the American people expect us to find?," said Boehner.

Despite talk about finding common ground, Tuesday's meeting did not produced concrete results on taxes or Senate ratification of the New START treaty with Russia.

Republicans say action on both issues should be postponed until next year when a new Congress convenes, something McConnell emphasized in his remarks after the talks.

Noting that finding common ground will not be easy, President Obama expressed satisfaction with what he called the civil atmosphere of Tuesday's talks, adding everyone appeared to recognize they cannot play political power games. "I think there was a sincere effort on the part of everybody involved to actually commit to work together, to try to deal with these problems.  They understand that these aren't times for us to be playing games," he said.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that the president saw the meeting as a "productive beginning" and that he told Republican lawmakers he recognized the importance of improving communications with them. "The president acknowledged that he needed to do better and acknowledged that, rightly, he would do his part," Gibbs said.

Obama said he views Tuesday's talks as only the first in a series of meetings aimed at establishing the groundwork for the president, Democrats and Republicans to work together in coming months.

To that end, Obama said he plans to invite lawmakers to take part in additional meetings, some of which could take place early next year at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland.