WASHINGTON — Taking little time to celebrate, President Barack Obama is setting out to leverage his re-election into legislative success in an upcoming showdown with congressional Republicans over taxes, deficits and the impending "fiscal cliff." House Speaker John Boehner says Republicans are willing to consider some form of higher tax revenue as part of the solution — but only "under the right conditions."
All sides are setting out opening arguments for the negotiations to come.
Even before returning to Washington from his hometown of Chicago, Obama was on the phone Wednesday with the four top leaders of the House and Senate, including Boehner, to talk about the lame-duck Congress that convenes just one week after Election Day.
Obama adviser David Axelrod warned Republican leaders to take lessons from Tuesday's vote. The president won after pledging to raise taxes on American households earning more than $250,000 a year "and was re-elected in a significant way," Axelrod told MSNBC Thursday morning.
"Hopefully people will read those results and read them as a vote for cooperation and will come to the table," Axelrod said. "And obviously everyone's going to have to come with an open mind to these discussions. But if the attitude is that nothing happened on Tuesday, that would be unfortunate."
He noted that conservative Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock in Indiana dismissed the value of compromise and instead said Democrats should join the GOP. "And I note that he's not on his way to the United States Senate," Axelrod said. Mourdock lost to Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly.
Without a budget deal to head off the fiscal showdown, the nation faces a combination of expiring Bush-era tax cuts and steep across-the-board spending cuts that could total $800 billion next year. Economists have warned that could tip the nation back into recession.
Vice President Joe Biden, flying to his home in Delaware from Chicago, told reporters aboard Air Force Two that the White House was "really anxious" to get moving on the problem. He said he'd been making a lot of calls and "people know we've got to get down to work and I think they're ready to move." He didn't identify whom he had spoken with but predicted the "fever will break" on past legislative gridlock after some soul-searching by Republicans.
The White House held out this week's election results as a mandate from voters for greater cooperation between the White House and Congress. At the same time, it reiterated Obama's top priorities: cutting taxes for middle-class families and small businesses, creating jobs and cutting the deficit "in a balanced way" — through a combination of tax increases on wealthier Americans and spending cuts.
Obama told the congressional leaders he believed "the American people sent a message in yesterday's election that leaders in both parties need to put aside their partisan interests and work with common purpose to put the interests of the American people and the American economy first," the White House said in a statement.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., channeled Obama in calling for a quick solution to the fiscal showdown and saying that asking "the richest of the rich" to pay more should be part of the equation. He added that he'd "do everything within my power to be as conciliatory as possible" but added, "I want everyone to also understand you can't push us around."
"Waiting for a month, six weeks, six months, that's not going to solve the problem," Reid said on Capitol Hill. "We know what needs to be done. And so I think that we should just roll up our sleeves and get it done."
Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said the postelection congressional session offers a good chance to reset the dynamics between the White House and congressional Republicans in search of compromise.
"I think there's the urgency of the matter that probably goes beyond anything we've seen to date," he said. "The urgency of the repercussions of driving off the cliff are so grave that I can't imagine that failure is an option."
Both Biden and Reid pointed to election exit poll results showing that most Americans support higher taxes on the wealthy.
Biden said there was "a clear sort of mandate about people coming much closer to our view about how to deal with tax policy," adding that "there's all kinds of potential to be able to reach a rational, principled compromise."
Boehner, for his part, said that for Obama to get support for new revenues "the president must be willing to reduce spending and shore up the entitlement programs that are the primary drivers of our debt."
"We aren't seeking to impose our will on the president. We're asking him to make good on his 'balanced' approach," the Ohio Republican said on Capitol Hill.
The reference to a balanced approach to deficit reduction reflected Obama's campaign-long call for higher taxes on incomes above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples. That was something Boehner made plain he opposes.
The House speaker said conditions on higher taxes would include a revamped tax code to make it cleaner and fairer, fewer loopholes and lower rates for all, adding that "we're closer than we think to the critical mass needed legislatively to get tax reform done."
Boehner did not specify what loopholes House Republicans might consider trimming.
Obama spent a rare morning off Wednesday at his home on Chicago's South Side, then stopped at campaign headquarters to meet privately with staff to thank them for their work in the long, grueling campaign. Workers climbed on top of desks to get a good look at the president.
Obama and his family then flew back to Washington on Air Force One. The president appeared to be in a good mood, racing younger daughter Sasha up the steps, then calling out "Come on slowpokes" to wife Michelle and older daughter Malia.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Ken Thomas and Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.
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