JUDY WOODRUFF: For the first time since Republicans won control of the House of Representatives four weeks ago, President Obama sat down with the congressional leaders from both parties today to plot the path forward.
NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.
KWAME HOLMAN: The political summit lasted two hours, twice as long as planned. And, afterward, both sides struck a cordial tone. The president called the session productive.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I thought that people came to it with a spirit of trying to work together. And I think it’s a good start as we move forward.
The American people did not vote for gridlock. They didn’t vote for unyielding partisanship. They’re demanding cooperation and they’re demanding progress. And they’ll hold all of us — and I mean all of us — accountable for it.
KWAME HOLMAN: Incoming House Speaker John Boehner and other Republicans sounded a similar note, while acknowledging their views differ sharply from Mr. Obama’s.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), House minority leader: 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 the American people expect us to find?
KWAME HOLMAN: A stated aim of today’s White House meeting was to resolve major issues in the lame-duck Congress. But it also was an early barometer of how the president and the opposition will get along in the next Congress. Resurgent Republicans will control the House come January and have a stronger presence in the Senate.
Two issues took top billing today: first, extending the Bush era tax cuts set to expire at the end of the year. The president wants to maintain the cuts only for the middle class. GOP leaders have called for extending the cuts for all taxpayers, including the wealthiest.
There was no agreement announced today, but lawmakers accepted an offer to work with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to find a compromise.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER: I think Republicans made the point that stopping all the looming tax hikes and cutting spending would, in fact, create jobs and get the economy moving again.
And, so, we’re looking forward to the conversation with the White House over extending all of the current rates. And I remain optimistic.
KWAME HOLMAN: The other major item was the president’s plea for the Senate to ratify a nuclear weapons treaty with Russia before this Congress ends.
But Republican leader Mitch McConnell said that is secondary to economic policy.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), minority leader: In the Senate, we’re wrestling with a lot of other matters that may have some level of importance, but aren’t in the same category as deciding what everybody’s tax rates are going to be and deciding how we’re going to spend the government.
So, I hope we can sort of reshuffle our priorities on the Senate side, get them in line with these two big issues, and hopefully wrap up the 111th Congress.
KWAME HOLMAN: It remained unclear whether long-term jobless benefits will be extended. They expire tomorrow for some two million Americans.
In the meantime, the president made clear he wants more sessions with congressional leaders from both parties. That includes an invitation to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, at a date to be determined.
JUDY WOODRUFF: A short time ago, I talked with President Obama’s senior adviser, David Axelrod. He joined us from the White House.
David Axelrod, thank you for talking with us.
DAVID AXELROD, senior adviser to President Obama: Good to be with you, Judy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You were in the meeting today. Did it accomplish the goal the president had set out?
DAVID AXELROD: Oh, I think it really did.
You know, we have had an election. I think the American people want us to work together to try and solve some of the big challenges facing this country. And this was an opportunity to sit down and — and — and talk things through.
And the tone was very good. It was positive. It was constructive. I think — I think strides were made. And, you know, we will see what comes of it. But it certainly was — for the kind of meeting that it was, the first meeting after the election of all of the leaders, it was a good one.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You said it was positive, constructive. But we gather no real differences were bridged today. The president wasn’t looking for that?
DAVID AXELROD: Well, I think that there was — I think there was a significant discussion outlining a way forward to solve some of the things that are in front of us right now.
As the president mentioned, and you know, he’s designated his treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, and Jack Lew, the new budget director, to sit down with designees, members from the two chambers, to work through potential solutions on this tax issue. That would be very important for the economy, very important for every middle-class person in this country, who will see their taxes go up by thousands of dollars if we can’t resolve this before January 1.
So, I consider that progress. But a number of other issues were touched on. There was a good give-and-take. I think it was a positive spirit. And, you know, as I said, we will see what comes of it, but you had to feel good about the meeting if you were there.
JUDY WOODRUFF: I ask because, you know, Republican leaders said the president acknowledged that he had not reached out to them sufficiently in the past. What exactly did he say about that?
DAVID AXELROD: Well, look, I think it’s very clear that communications have not always been the best over the last two years.
We have shared responsibilities now as a result of the election. It’s very, very important that there be open lines of communication. I’m not going to be Pollyannish about it. There are big differences. That’s why we have two parties. But it is important that, where we can find common ground, we do, especially on these fundamental issues like the economy and national security.
And, so, having open lines of communication is going to be very, very important.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we’re, all of us in the media, in fact, the whole country, I guess, is interested in knowing where these gaps are going to be bridged, because the Republicans most recently have said they think that the president ought to be doing the compromising.
So, if that’s their view, where do you see the give?
DAVID AXELROD: Well, look, I think people say things and they — you know, and they posture. That’s the nature of politics. That’s sometimes the requirement of politics.
But I think the fundamental requirement that people have for Republicans and Democrats in Washington right now is to find a way forward, not to compromise their principles, because they have theirs; we have ours. But, at the end of the day, we need to move forward on some of these things particularly things that are — affect our economy.
We have a recovery. It needs to accelerate. A lot of people are still feeling the effects of this recession. There are things we can do to help accelerate that recovery, and we ought — we ought to do them.
JUDY WOODRUFF: On the tax cuts question, David Axelrod, we know the president would prefer that they not be extended for the wealthy. But, if the Republicans insist on that, is he prepared to go along with it?
DAVID AXELROD: Well, look, the president’s position is very clear. He thinks there ought to be a permanent tax cut for the — for the middle class. The middle class has had a — not just a difficult time in this recession, but it’s been battered through the last decade, where incomes have actually declined, while incomes at the top have actually — have grown exponentially.
So, that makes sense. What he’s also said is that we can’t afford a permanent tax cut for the wealthy. It would cost $700 billion that we don’t have in the next 10 years alone. We don’t want to borrow that money and add to our debt to do it. And those are the parameters he’s set. And we’re — Mr. Geithner and Mr. Lew are going to sit down with their representatives and see where we can go from there.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But it sounds like you’re saying — you’re basically saying what the president has said before. Is there give is what I’m asking.
DAVID AXELROD: Not on those issues. I mean, we obviously — we want a tax cut for the middle class. We have to have that. The middle class can’t go into January 1 without — without that tax cut. And we can’t accept a permanent tax cut for the wealthy, at a cost of $700 billion we don’t have.
But, you know, what I’m not going to do, Judy, is on this program do the job that those other gentlemen were tasked to do and have the authority to do. It’s good to have a conversation with you, but neither you or I — or — nor I are empowered to resolve this. And we will see what they come up with.
JUDY WOODRUFF: We will see.
I do want to ask you about another issue that we know came up today. And that’s the New START treaty, the nuclear weapons reduction treaty with the Russians. The Republicans have said that, if the White House, if Democrats would agree to just strip the congressional agenda down in this lame-duck to tax cuts and government spending, that, if there’s time left, then they would look, be prepared to look at this New START treaty.
Will the president go along with that?
DAVID AXELROD: Well, the president has made very clear that he thinks it’s essential that we take up the START treaty right now.
Because we’re in this interregnum, we don’t have the ability to surveil what’s going on, on the ground with weapons in Russia. Beyond that, this treaty represents part of a growing alliance with Russia on some issues, including Iran, how we deal with North Korea, which is obviously very important right now.
And it’s been a productive relationship over the last couple of years that has been built. All of that is at stake here. And we ought to move forward. This is a matter of national security, and we ought to move forward on it. The president was very clear with members of both parties today that this is a priority for him.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But if it means stripping the congressional agenda down to just tax cuts, government spending, and START, is the president prepared not to push on — on the other issues that are out there?
DAVID AXELROD: Judy, the — the feeling that I got today in that room was that there is a sense of cooperation and that there is an opportunity to get a number of things done in the next several weeks. And I’m not going to limit that.
They weren’t limited in that agenda — in that meeting today. And I’m certainly not going to do it here. I think that there is the ability to get — if there is the will, there is a way to get a number of things done that need to get done between now and the end of the year.
And the president raised unemployment insurance, for example. It’s expiring. Two million Americans are going to lose their unemployment insurance. It is a disastrous situation for them. And it’s bad for our economy as well. That’s one issue that we ought to deal with.
And there are several others. So, you know, I don’t think that anything that happened in that meeting proscribed our ability to — to do these other things.
JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you. David Axelrod, senior adviser to President Obama, thanks very much.
DAVID AXELROD: Good to be with you, Judy. Thank you.