By Olivier Knox (AFP) – Nov 29, 2010
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama hosts his top congressional allies and adversaries Tuesday for talks on boosting the US economy, averting a tax hike and saving an arms control agreement with Russia.
"We face challenges that will require the cooperation of Democrats, Republicans and independents," Obama said Monday. "We can't afford to fall back onto the same old ideologies or the same stale soundbites."
Four weeks after his Democrats suffered an elections rout, the president was set to welcome fired-up Republican leaders to the White House for a summit that may set the tone for political battles up to his 2012 bid for a new term.
Obama has touted the meeting, which will group top lawmakers of both parties from the Senate and House of Representatives, as a chance to set aside partisan rancor and cooperate on top goals like battling stubbornly high unemployment.
"My hope is that tomorrow's meeting will mark a first step towards a new and productive working relationship, because we now have a shared responsibility to deliver for the American people," he said.
Republicans, who recaptured the House of Representatives and sliced deep into the Democratic Senate majority in November 2 elections, have said publicly that they, too, are looking for common ground.
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is "encouraged" that Obama wants to discuss "areas of agreement" with Republicans, including cuts in government spending, boosting job growth through expanded trade and increasing domestic production of energy, his spokesman Don Stewart said.
But the year-end "lame duck" legislative session under way has highlighted deep divisions on key issues, including Republican opposition to Senate ratification of a landmark nuclear arms control treaty with Russia.
Republicans led by their number-two, Senator Jon Kyl, have signaled they hope to block a final vote on the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) this year, handing Obama a defeat on a top foreign policy priority.
The 100-seat Senate currently counts 56 Democrats and two independents who vote with them, and ratification requires 67 votes. Republican hold 42 seats now but that number will rise to 47 when a new Congress arrives in January.
Obama, who has ramped up pressure for approving the accord, said Monday that the treaty is "essential to our safety and security."
The two sides also face a brewing battle over renewing sweeping tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003 with a built-in expiration date at the end of this year.
Republicans want all of the rates to remain the same beyond January 1, warning that any tax increase will hurt sputtering US economic growth and damage efforts to lower unemployment of near 10 percent.
Obama and top Democrats want to extend middle-class tax cuts but say the country cannot afford to do the same for those in the uppermost income brackets, which would cost roughly 700 billion dollars over 10 years.
Lawmakers must also find a way to fund government operations after failing to enact any of the spending bills needed for fiscal year 2011, which began October 1.
The options include a catch-all funding measure, or a temporary bill to keep the government open for the next few months.
Democrats also aim to pass legislation to lift the ban on gays serving openly in the US military, after the Pentagon reports on how best to end that restriction and on what the troops and their families think of such a step.
Here, too, the ticking legislative clock poses a problem for the White House and its allies, with Republicans expected to set procedural hurdles that require 60 votes to advance the bill.
Democrats are counting on broad US public support for ending the "don't ask, don't tell" ban first enacted in 1993, as well as strong support from senior uniformed military leaders, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.
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