Obama prioritizes START, tax cuts in lawmaker meeting

President Obama has outlined two top priorities for his meeting with Republican and Democratic leaders scheduled for Tuesday: passing the New START treaty and dealing with the expiring Bush tax cuts.

Obama, sporting stitches in his lip from a Thanksgiving basketball mishap, noted that while Washington is a town known for “sharp elbows,” he is using the White House meeting as a way to open a new, bipartisan chapter in his administration.

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“I hope everybody had a great Thanksgiving, but now it’s time to get back to work,” Obama said Monday. “Congress is back in town this week, and I’m looking forward to sitting down with Republican leaders tomorrow to discuss many issues, foremost among them the American people’s business that remains to be done this year.”

The president said he hopes the meeting, which was rescheduled at the request of the GOP leadership, “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.”

“And I hope we can do that in a cooperative and serious way,” Obama said.

But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said he doesn’t anticipate the leaders to emerge having formed a consensus on the thorny issue of extending the Bush tax cuts.

“I do not expect that we’ll come out after an hour or hour and a half and have full agreement on this,” Gibbs said. “I hope there’s agreement on the notion of how important it is to get this done by the end of the year.”

Gibbs said the president’s No. 1 priority is dealing with the tax issue, and START is second.

Obama and congressional Democrats had hinted in recent weeks that they are open to compromising with Republicans who want to see tax cuts extended for the wealthiest Americans. But on Monday, Gibbs returned to a criticism of those tax cuts that Obama repeatedly stated on the campaign trail.

“I think there’s a unified position among most Democrats that I’ve seen that we simply cannot afford to borrow $700 billion to extend the tax cuts of those that make $1 million or $1 billion a year or make in excess of $250,000 a year,” Gibbs said. “We can’t have an honest discussion about our debts and our deficits without understanding what those decisions mean in the short term and in the long term.”

But Obama’s remarks made clear he is focused on finding common ground at Tuesday’s meeting.

With that in mind, Obama said, “The two most fundamental challenges are keeping the American people safe and growing our economy.

“And it’s in that spirit that I look forward to sitting down tomorrow and talking about urgent matters like the ratification of the New START Treaty, which is so essential to our safety and security, and the status of the Bush-era tax cuts that are set to expire at the end of this year,” Obama said.

In proposing a two-year pay freeze for federal workers, Obama noted his deficit commission is expected to complete its work this week. The commission’s preliminary report contained myriad controversial steps to cut the deficit, including cutting Social Security benefits and raising the retirement age.

Obama said he hopes the report “will spark a serious and long-overdue conversation in this town,” laying the groundwork for shared responsibility between himself and the incoming GOP majority.

“Those of us who have been charged to lead will have to confront some very difficult decisions: cutting spending we don’t need in order to invest in the things that we do,” Obama said. “As president, I’m committed to doing my part.”

Obama laid out the pay freeze as the first of “some additional very tough decisions that this town has put off for a very long time, and that’s what this upcoming week is really about.”

“My hope is that starting today, we can begin a bipartisan conversation about our future, because we face challenges that will require the cooperation of Democrats, Republicans and independents,” Obama said. “Everybody’s going to have to cooperate. We can’t afford to fall back onto the same old ideologies or the same stale sound bites.

“We’re going to have to budge on some deeply held positions and compromise for the good of the country. We’re going to have to set aside politics of the moment to make progress for the long term. And as I’ve often said, we’re going to have to think not just about the next election, but about the next generation.”

Gibbs said he expects that Tuesday’s meeting will be the first of many as Obama and Republicans work together to find areas of compromise.

This story was posted at 12:57 p.m. and updated at 7:36 p.m.