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Obama Aims for New Tone

President Barack Obama will be doing a lot more than ticking off priorities for the lame-duck session when he meets with House and Senate party leaders Thursday: He will be hitting the reset button on his otherwise dysfunctional relationship with Congress.

After two years of working around Republicans and corralling Democrats to pass scaled-back pieces of his agenda, Obama is responding to the Nov. 2 elections that decimated his party by vowing to try harder for bipartisanship.

On Sunday, while flying back from a trip to Asia, Obama previewed the message he will deliver in his meeting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), among others.

“My expectation is, when I sit down with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner this week, along with the Democratic leaders, that there are a set of things that need to get done during the lame duck and that they are not going to want to just obstruct — that they’re going to want to engage constructively. There are going to be some disagreements.  There may be some need for compromise,” he told reporters on the flight.

The president noted that while Republicans are “still flush with victory” after winning more than 60 House seats and control of the House in the midterms, they are also now responsible for heeding the pleas of voters for less bickering in Washington, D.C.

“I am very confident that the American people were not issuing a mandate for gridlock,” he said.

The White House is already signaling that its first major olive branch to Republicans could be support for extending all of the Bush tax cuts set to expire this year, a stance at odds with Pelosi and other Democrats who have firmly opposed continuing the cuts for any income group beyond the middle class.

The president said recently that he is “absolutely” willing to negotiate on the issue, and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs indicated Obama is “open” to the idea of temporarily extending the cuts for couples who make more than $250,000 in exchange for Republicans uniting behind extending the middle-class cuts. White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod dodged the question altogether when asked about Obama’s support for a temporary extension in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”

A Democratic leadership aide dismissed Obama’s new position on the issue as “white noise” and emphasized that any vote on extending the tax cuts won’t come for several weeks and after rounds of negotiations.

But senior House and Senate aides in both parties speculated that Obama would pitch his compromise in Thursday’s meeting in an effort to set a more conciliatory tone for the future. And a senior Democratic aide predicted that with Obama’s offer will come a message to Republicans about his limits on compromising: “The minute your GOP crazies start sending me bills to eliminate the income tax or abolish the Department of Education, I will start buying spare ink cartridges for the veto pen.”

Beyond the tax cut tussle, Hill leaders will be looking to Obama for guidance on competing priorities for the lame duck, including a resolution to keep the government funded, action on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and potentially controversial votes on repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and the DREAM Act. The president has yet to signal how strongly he will push for action on the latter two items, which are top priorities for his political base.

More than anything, however, aides say party leaders will be looking to Obama to set the tone for how to proceed, particularly because Thursday will be the first time they will all be together since Democrats took a beating in the midterm elections.

“I think this is really a feeling-out process where everyone is trying to determine who’s willing to give where,” a senior House GOP aide said.

“Republicans are emboldened by the results of the midterms. The Democrats are trying to take a stand and re-establish themselves. The White House is caught somewhere in between,” the aide said.

But bipartisanship will take more than Obama calling for it, as evidenced by aides to both parties already saying that any legislative successes in the lame duck — and over the next two years — will be incumbent on the other party taking a more conciliatory attitude.

“The White House meeting is an important test for Republicans,” a House Democratic leadership aide said. “They need to start showing they want to get real things done and not just play to their base by saying they will not compromise.”

Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman, countered that Democrats should use the meeting to show a willingness to change course in their agenda if they expect GOP cooperation.

“We think the American public made it clear they want us to focus on helping to create jobs by stopping all of the tax hikes, cutting spending and repealing and replacing the job-killing health care law,” Steel said. “We hope Democrats are ready to work with us on these priorities.”

A senior Senate Republican aide suggested that Obama needs to rethink his understanding of bipartisanship altogether, given how often he used the word as he presided over an intensely partisan Congress during the first two years of his presidency.

“For too long his take on bipartisanship has been ‘you agree with me.’ That attitude didn’t yield very positive results or popular legislation,” the aide said.

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