President Barack Obama’s first formal meeting with Republican and Democratic top dogs since the midterm elections yielded mutual praise from both sides, cautiousness about the politically charged debates to come, and no major breakthroughs on key policy negotiations.
Which is pretty much what was expected.
Dubbed the “Slurpee Summit” after Obama's often-used campaign line accusing Republicans of lazily sipping on the tasty frozen treats while Democrats toiled to fix the economy, the discussion was praised by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as "useful and frank." The president called it a “productive” conversation that could signal “the beginning of a new dialogue” between the two parties.
But, while the compliments flowed freely, both the president and GOP leaders warned that it may be difficult to overcome stark ideological differences between the two sides.
“We have two parties for a reason. There are real philosophical differences, deeply held principles to which each party holds,” Obama said. “Although the atmosphere in today’s meeting was extremely civil, there’s no doubt that those differences are going to remain no matter how many meetings we have. And the truth is there is always going to be a political incentive against working together, particularly in the current hyperpartisan climate.”
"We had a very nice meeting today. Of course, we have had a lot of very nice meetings," said House Speaker-in-waiting John Boehner. "The question is can we find the common ground the American people expect us to find."
The two parties have not yet reached agreement on the key issue of a looming logjam over the extension of Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class and for high earners. “There’s still differences about how to get there,” Obama said of a solution. He and Republican leaders have named negotiators to continue attempts to hammer out an agreement.
Other agenda items for today’s meeting included the extension of emergency unemployment insurance benefits, which expire at the end of the month, as well as the passage of spending bills that fund almost all government operations and the ratification of the new START treaty.
The "summit" attracted rapt attention and media coverage because it was the first such face-to-face meeting of Republican leaders at the White House since the November "shellacking" delivered to the president’s party.
But, while it was the first occasion since the ascendant GOP majority was made official at the ballot box, Boehner and McConnell are no strangers to the White House.
In 2010 alone, Obama hosted meetings at his residence with Republican leaders to address job creation, financial reform, health care legislation, foreign policy, and energy proposals.
But such summits have previously resulted in minimal agreement between the two parties.
When the president and House Republicans engaged in a 90-minute televised question-and-answer-session during a GOP retreat in February, many hailed the candid “question time” as a new benchmark for bipartisan public debate. But some Republicans were less enthusiastic about the glare of the cameras, which allowed a fairly flattering performance by a defiant president. GOP aides told NBC at the time that allowing cameras to capture the long exchange was “a mistake.”
A subsequent highly publicized summit to address health care overhaul with members of both parties. A top Republican called the event ‘pointless’ before it even took place; McConnell said he was “discouraged” by the event’s outcome as soon as it was over.
Shortly before that meeting in February, as the second of two epic D.C. snowstorms loomed, Obama quipped that a bipartisan tete-a-tete with congressional leaders went so well that McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were “out doing snow angels together on the South Lawn.”
But the giggles soon gave way to a slightly more frosty assessment by the president. “'Bipartisan' can’t be that I agree to all the things that they believe in or want and they agree to none of the things that I want,” Obama told reporters.