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Obama challenges Cabinet, sets bipartisan talks

November 4, 2010

US President Barack Obama pauses before answering a question during a press conference on midterm elections … WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama sought Thursday to retake the political initiative after a bruising election, inviting Republican and Democratic congressional leaders for talks and challenging his Cabinet to make Washington work better.

"I want us to talk substantively about how we can move the American people's agenda forward," Obama said of the upcoming meeting with lawmakers. "It's not just going to be a photo op."

The Nov. 18 meeting will be closely watched, in particular, for any signs of elusive progress between Obama and his two frequent Republican antagonists, incoming House Speaker-in-Waiting John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. They will be joined by the top Democrats in Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Four other lawmakers will join the meeting: Republicans Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia and Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, and Democrats Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said no staff would take part in the meeting, which will also include a working and social dinner. Gibbs said he expects the meeting to be the first of many.

Tuesday's elections amounted to a national political reset, shifting control of the House to Republicans when the new Congress convenes early next year.

"It's clear that the voters sent a message, which is that they want us to focus on the economy and jobs," Obama told reporters, with Cabinet members at his side. The president said he instructed his Cabinet to make a "sincere and consistent" effort to change how Washington works, something he acknowledges has been a failing of his administration so far.

The president said he wants the bipartisan meeting with congressional leaders to be a substantive discussion on the economy, tax cuts and unemployment insurance. He wants to focus on the busy legislative agenda that awaits Congress when lawmakers return for a lame-duck session. Among the top front-burner issues: renewing Bush-era tax cuts due to expire at year's end.

Aware that he's been pegged as antibusiness, Obama said, "We've got to provide businesses with some certainty about what their tax landscape is going to look like." He added that it's critical for middle class families to have that same sense of reassurance.

Gibbs said Thursday that while extending tax cuts permanently for upper income earners "is something the president does not believe is a good idea", Obama would be open to the possibility of extending the cuts for one or two years.

Obama also said the work that needs to be done during this month's legislative session extends to foreign policy. Specifically, he said, the Senate should ratify a new arms control treaty with Russia. Obama said the START treaty, which would cut U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals by one-fourth, is something that is essential to the country's national security and should have bipartisan support.

More broadly, Obama said: "What's going to be critically important over the coming months is going to be creating a better working relationship between this White House and the congressional leadership that's coming in."

The gap between the announcement of an Obama-Hill leadership meeting and the session itself — two weeks from now _is due to Obama's foreign travels. He will be on a four-country trip to Asia from Friday through Nov. 14.

The president said one of his top priorities on the trip is to open Asian markets to U.S. companies so they can sell in the region, a development Obama said would help create jobs at home.

"My hope is that we've got some specific announcements to show the connection between what we're doing overseas and what happens over here at home in terms of job growth and economic growth," Obama said.

The president will also hold a meeting at the White House with newly elected Democratic and Republican governors on Dec. 2.

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