By Mark Felsenthal and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said he and congressional leaders must quickly get down to work to avert upcoming automatic tax hikes and spending cuts as he sat down for talks with lawmakers on Friday.
"I think we're all aware that we have some urgent business to do," the president told reporters.
"We've got to make sure that taxes don't go up on middle-class families, that our economy remains strong, that we're creating jobs, and that's an agenda that Democrats and Republicans and independents, people all across the country share," he said.
Obama met with congressional leaders and top aides in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. To the president's right sat House Speaker John Boehner and to his left was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Vice President Joe Biden also was at the table with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, the president's Chief of Staff Jack Lew, and the National Economic Council head Gene Sperling.
Obama repeated his position that the solution to avoiding the so-called fiscal cliff must balance increased tax revenues against any cuts to spending or reforms to social safety net programs.
"My hope is that this is going to be the beginning of a fruitful process where we're able to come to an 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," he said.
Adding a touch of levity at the start of what are expected to be tough negotiations, but also giving a hint of the type of jostling that lies ahead, the president called reporters back to congratulate Boehner on his birthday.
"For those who want to wish him a happy birthday, we're not going to embarrass him with a cake because we didn't know how many candles were needed," Obama said.
Smiling, Boehner, replied, "Yeah, right."
(Editing by Bill Trott)