Obama, lawmakers hold ‘constructive’ talks on taxes, deficit

Olivier Knox

Finally, a bipartisan consensus in polarized Washington! Congressional leaders of both parties emerged from an opening round of "fiscal cliff" talks with President Barack Obama at the White House on Friday describing the negotiations as "constructive."

Obama himself spiced up relatively boilerplate language about hoping for a deal by wishing Republican House Speaker John Boehner an early happy birthday before the talks began.

"Tomorrow is Speaker Boehner's birthday," Obama told reporters. "We're not going to embarrass him with a cake because we didn't know how many candles were needed."

"Yeah, right," said Boehner with a grin. (The speaker, who turns 63 on Saturday, is well-known for his "Birthday Song.")

"But we do want to wish him a happy birthday," the president said.

Obama then mostly hewed to his re-election campaign message of wanting "fruitful" talks for a "balanced" deficit-reduction deal—code for "raising taxes on the richest Americans." The president has vowed to veto any legislation that extends the Bush-era tax rate reductions on Americans making over $250,000. Republicans say hiking taxes on the rich will cost jobs.

"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," Obama said. "And what folks are looking for—and I think all of us agree on this—is action." Speaking in the sun-soaked White House driveway after the meeting, Boehner and other top leaders seemed to be singing from the same hymnal even though evident differences remained.

"We had a very constructive meeting," proclaimed Boehner. "I think it was a very constructive meeting," declared Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "It was a very constructive meeting," agreed Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. "I can only echo the observations of the other leaders that it was a constructive meeting," said Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Boehner said he had outlined a "framework" combining increased tax revenues with spending cuts "to show our seriousness. While we're going to continue to have revenue on the table, it's going to be incumbent for my colleagues to show the American people that we're serious about cutting spending and solving our fiscal dilemma. I believe that we can do this and avert the fiscal cliff that's right in front of us today."

Pelosi warned against too-deep cuts in "investments" (government outlays in areas like education and infrastructure) but said, "I feel confident a solution may be in sight. 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. We should have a deadline before Christmas."

Republicans "fully understand that you can't save the country until you have entitlement programs that fit the demographics of changing America in the coming years," said McConnell. "We're prepared to put revenue on the table provided we fix the real problem."

"We have the cornerstones of being able to work something out," Reid said. "We all know something has to be done—there 's no more 'Let's do it some other time.' We're going to do it now.

"This isn't something we're going to wait until the last day of December to get it done," Reid continued. "We have a plan, we're going to move forward on it."

Congressional leaders will work through the Thanksgiving recess and then meet with Obama the week after that.

Obama's smiling exchange with Boehner came three days after the president, at his first postelection press conference, admitted that his personal relationships with key lawmakers need work. "I think there's no doubt that I can always do better," he had told reporters. "And I don't exempt myself from needing to do some self-reflection and see if I can improve our working relationship."

In addition to Obama and the lawmakers, Vice President Joe Biden, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, White House chief of staff Jack Lew and top Obama economic adviser Gene Sperling attended the talks.