WASHINGTON – The clock running, President Barack Obama and Republican and Democratic congressional leaders are sizing up each other as they struggle for common ground on taxes and nuclear arms before the end of the year.
The president and top congressional officials planned to meet Tuesday morning in the White House, the first such session since the midterm elections altered the political terrain and the government's balance of power.
Of immediate consequence is the fate of expiring Bush-era tax rates and a U.S.-Russia treaty to reduce nuclear weapons arsenals.
Appearing in advance of the White House meeting on NBC's "Today" show Tuesday, House Republican Whip Eric Cantor said Republicans are not inclined to back off their demand that Bush era tax cuts be preserved for all, including the wealthy.
Cantor said he believes one of the biggest hurdles to job creation is uncertainty in the business community over tax policy.
"We're walking in this room with the realization we're not going to agree with the president on everything," he said, "but I do hope we leave this meeting with a resolve to address the economy." Cantor said this is no time to raise tax rates for anyone, particularly at a time when the government is trying to jump start job-creation across the country.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asked if there were any chance of compromise on the tax question, replied, "We don't want to raise anybody's taxes."
Obama's meeting with House and Senate leaders from both parties — eight altogether — will help define the interaction between the White House and a divided Congress for the next two years.
Obama said Monday he hopes the meeting "will mark a first step toward a new and productive working relationship, because we now have a shared responsibility to deliver for the American people on the issues that define not only these times but our future."
Despite their political gains, Republicans are approaching Tuesday's session with some apprehension. Presidents typically gain a public relations advantage by inviting leaders of the opposition party to the White House.
Many Republicans still bristle at the health care summit that Obama called last February. Democrats got more time to make their case than Republicans, and the session yielded no Democratic compromises.
"In the past, when we have private meetings with the president, he has rarely missed the opportunity to lecture us for our political or ideological beliefs," Cantor said Monday. "I'm hopeful that those days are gone."
In a double-bylined op-ed piece Tuesday in The Washington Post, House Speaker-to-be John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signaled that any compromises with the White House on spending and tax cuts would have to be on their terms.
"We can work together and accomplish these things, but the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress first will have to prioritize," they wrote. "It's time to choose struggling middle-class families and small businesses over the demands of the liberal base. It's time to get serious."
Cantor, who will become the House majority leader in January, accused the president of engaging in "class warfare." `'This country is about making sure everyone has a fair shot," he said in an interview.
Republicans applauded Obama's announcement Monday to freeze the pay of all civilian federal employees for two years; traditional Democratic allies, including the AFL-CIO, denounced it as shortsighted.
The White House had initially scheduled the meeting for Nov. 18 but rescheduled at the request of McConnell and Boehner. That session was to have concluded with a private dinner. Tuesday's session was expected to last an hour and end before lunch.
"No doubt there are interesting dynamics," said chief White House political adviser David Axelrod. "There are people who say they want to take steps to deal with our long-term debt issues. We'll work with anyone who wants to work with us on that in a productive way."
Cantor was interviewed on CBS's "The Early Show" and NBC's "Today" program and McCain appeared on ABC.