WASHINGTON -- A post-election "bury the hatchet" meeting with President Obama and Republican and Democratic leaders was abruptly postponed this week. Neither side is ready to bury it.
In the aftermath of the Democrats' massive losses in Congress, the White House was suddenly sending signals that it wanted to cease its political warfare and seek compromise between the two parties.
Republicans, too, said they were willing to sit down with Obama, talk over their differences and see what the president means by compromise. But a couple of weeks after the polls closed, the White House and Democratic leaders made it clear they weren't budging on anything, least of all the primary issue in the upcoming lame-duck session: the biggest tax increase in U.S. history.
Senior presidential adviser David Axelrod seemed to be signaling support for an across-the-board extension of the soon-to-expire tax cuts, only to be slapped down by Obama. Within hours Axelrod was announcing there is no change in the White House's plan to raise the top income tax rates to a job-killing 40 percent.
On Capitol Hill, the Democrats were also digging in their heels. In the House, Democrats re-elected archliberal Nancy Pelosi, the take-no-prisoners architect of their defeat, as their minority leader. She was the driving force behind the failed $800-billion stimulus bill, the $2-trillion health care plan, and the Democrats' multi-trillion-dollar deficit spending binge.
A majority of those who went to the polls voted against these and other spending schemes championed by the Democrats. The voters were clearly sending the ruling party a message, but they still don't get it.
A senior staffer for the House Democratic leadership told me this week that "the House Democrats' position has not changed" on plans to pass the tax increase bill that many in their party oppose.
So much for bipartisanship.
More than 60 House Democrats lost their seats on Election Day, 43 House Democrats voted to replace Pelosi as minority leader with a token challenger, and, in a further rebuke of her failed policies, 68 of them voted to postpone any leadership vote until next month.
"When you have taken the largest losses of any majority in my lifetime," said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who called for postponing the vote, it's "time for reflection to better understand the reason for those losses."
But now that the House Democrat caucus has been cut down to a much more liberal minority, Pelosi and her gang are in no mood to compromise with the GOP. Neither is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. His response to the loss of six Democrats is to expand the influence of New York Sen. Charles Schumer, one of the most partisan Democrats in the leadership.
So with the Democrats divided and in disarray on Capitol Hill, and a significantly weakened White House sending confused and mixed messages about where it is headed next, GOP leaders decided this was not the best time for a meeting and cozy upstairs dinner with the president and Democratic leaders.
Obama needs this meeting more than they do. He was the one who promised to change the partisan tone in Washington, then led a sharply partisan attack on the Republicans in the final weeks of the midterm elections.
His economic stimulus schemes have been colossal and costly failures, and he and his party have run out of ideas about what to do next. Economic forecasters at the Fed and elsewhere see slower growth next year and beyond, and still the White House is calling for higher taxes on an anemic, jobless economy.
His trade trip to Asia, immediately after his policies and his party suffered a massive rebuke from the voters, was seen as a complete failure. He has refused to submit three negotiated trade agreements for ratification and done little to open up new markets for U.S. exports because of deep opposition from organized labor.
The White House suffered a further setback this week after Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the second-ranking Republican, said there was no time to consider the new START nuclear arms treaty in this lame-duck session. Obama needs 14 Republicans to reach the 67 votes for approval, and Kyl's decision gives the GOP the 14 that they needed to postpone action until next year.
So, this lame-duck session that made a mountain of unfinished budget bills is shaping up as an uncomfortable experience for Obama and his party. The biggest battle will be whether to extend all of the Bush tax cuts, as Republicans want, or raise the two top tax rates on businesses and employers while the U.S. economy is still struggling to lift itself out of this recession.
This will be Topic A between Obama and the Republicans when they meet on Nov. 30. The betting in this corner is that Obama will seek some kind of a temporary extension on the grounds that this is no time to be raising income taxes on anyone. But right now the House Republicans want a permanent extension.
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