By Justin Sink - 11/16/12 03:59 PM EST
Negotiations over the "fiscal cliff" began on a friendly note Friday at the White House, with President Obama congratulating Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) on his 63rd birthday.
"Tomorrow is Speaker Boehner's birthday," the president said to the congressional leaders gathered in the Roosevelt Room. "We're not going to embarrass him with a cake, because we didn't know how many candles we'd need."
The friendly gesture drew a laugh and a firm handshake from the Speaker as leaders began the first negotiating session over the "fiscal cliff," which has become short-hand for the slew of automatic tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect in January.
The relationship between Obama and Boehner could be the key to whether the talks succeed. The two men tried to strike a "grand bargain" on the deficit last summer, only to have a public falling out when the talks unraveled. Obama complained that Boehner had left him at the altar, while the Speaker accused the president of "moving the goalposts" on the terms of the deal.
On Friday, the president said the American people were looking for "action."
Joining Obama and Boehner were congressional leaders including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Also in attendance were Vice President Biden, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, White House chief of staff Jack Lew and National Economic Director Gene Sperling.
In his remarks at the top of the meeting, the president thanked the congressional leaders for coming to the White House.
"I want to welcome the congressional leadership here and thank them for their time," Obama said. "I think we're all aware that we have some urgent business to do. We've got to make sure that taxes don't go up on middle-class families, that our economy remains strong."
He also he was hopeful the leaders would be "able to come to agreement that will reduce our deficit in a balanced way, that we will deal with some of these long-term impediments to growth and we're also going to be focusing on making sure that middle-class families are able to get ahead."
The group is expected to meet throughout the morning.
The White House has said that President Obama is looking in the negotiation to secure the $1.6 trillion in additional taxes — primarily from the wealthiest Americans — outlined in his most recent budget. Congressional Republicans have said they are open to some additional revenues that would come from closing tax loopholes for the wealthiest Americans, but remain opposed to raising tax rates.
Also at issue are proposed spending cuts to the Pentagon and social programs, including Medicare and food stamps. Republicans are looking to avoid cuts to defense programs, while congressional Democrats have promised to protect entitlement programs.