Obama makes nice with GOP

President Obama told Republican leaders on Tuesday he should have reached out to them more over the first two years of his presidency.

The acknowledgement from Obama, who campaigned on a promise to change Washington’s partisan ways, follows a decisive victory for Republicans in November’s midterm elections.

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As Obama turns his eye to his own reelection in 2012, he must deal with a new GOP majority in the House and with a larger group of Senate Republicans.

During a White House meeting with congressional leaders, Obama gave a nod to the new political landscape by signaling more engagement from his administration with the resurgent GOP.

Obama offered up two of his most important Cabinet members for negotiations on expiring tax rates that are expected to dominate debate during the lame-duck session of Congress.

The president said Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Office of Management and Budget Director Jack Lew will meet regularly with four members of the Senate and House to reach a compromise on tax cuts for the wealthy, which the White House wants to end and Republicans want to extend.

The president also signaled more personal engagement, including through a possible retreat at Camp David with leaders from both parties. That meeting, which the president discussed with the congressional leaders without aides in the room, could come early sometime next year, said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

Obama’s White House overtures to Republicans came a day after his announcement of a two-year pay freeze for federal workers, which appeared to draw from the GOP playbook. Republicans praised that proposal while faulting the president for not going far enough. Liberal groups and unions, who worry Obama may pursue President Clinton’s strategy of working with Republicans on some of their ideas, blasted the president’s proposal.

The president met with the leaders of both parties in Congress for almost two hours in the private dining room off the Oval Office, a longer period than expected. Thirty-five minutes of the meeting was without staff so that participants could have a more “intimate” conversation, Gibbs said.

Incoming Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) attended the meeting. Current Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) represented Democrats.

Gibbs confirmed Cantor’s remark to reporters about Obama telling the GOP that he did not reach out to it as much as he should have.

“I think the president acknowledged that he needed to do better and acknowledged that — rightly — that he would do his part,” Gibbs said at this daily briefing.

Republicans repeatedly criticized Obama over the past two years for ramming legislation down their throats. Democrats, for their part, have said the economic stimulus package and healthcare and financial overhaul laws included dozens of proposals from Republicans.

Both Republicans and the White House on Tuesday voiced optimism that they could work together, though they appeared to make no significant progress on a tax deal.

The White House wants to extend tax cuts for individuals with income less than $200,000 and families with income less than $250,000, but would end Bush-era tax cuts for wealthier people. The GOP wants to extend all the tax cuts permanently.

Obama said he still believes an extension for the richest Americans “would be unwise and unfair.”

“Having said that, we agreed that there must be some sensible common ground,” Obama said in comments after the meeting. The sessions with Lew and Geithner should help “to break through this logjam,” he said.

Geithner and Lew will meet with a Republican and Democrat from the House and Senate in the tax discussions.

The two Cabinet members attended the first part of the meeting, but left when the rest of the staff did.

Boehner said he is optimistic the meetings with Obama’s top economic aides will yield an agreement that includes extending the tax cuts across the board.

Pelosi called it a “very positive” meeting and described the focus as being about “moving forward, and doing so in a way that reduces [joblessness], reduces the deficit and lowers taxes for the middle class.”

Pelosi said Obama “presented the position that he’s presented all along, that we are for middle-income tax cuts up to $250,000.”

Asked if Republicans and Democrats could work out a compromise on the contentious issue, Pelosi replied: “That’s what we’ll be meeting to find out.”

In his comments, Obama lamented the “political incentive” for balking at compromise in the “current, hyper-partisan climate.”

“I was pleased to see several of my friends in the room say, ‘Let’s try not to duplicate that,’ ” Obama said.

Russell Berman contributed to this story.