Bipartisanship elusive in post-election Washington

WASHINGTON Wed Nov 24, 2010 12:34pm EST

U.S. President Barack Obama returns to the White House in Washington, November 23, 2010, following a daytrip to Kokomo, Indiana. REUTERS/Jason Reed

U.S. President Barack Obama returns to the White House in Washington, November 23, 2010, following a daytrip to Kokomo, Indiana.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Polls show Americans want bipartisanship from the new balance of power in Washington, but so far there is little indication that President Barack Obama and resurgent Republicans will work much together.

Three weeks after Republicans won control of the House of Representatives from Obama's Democrats and gained ground in the Senate, it is still unclear if the two sides will cut a deal to extend tax cuts set to expire on December 31 for millions of Americans.

It also remains uncertain if they will find much, if any, common ground on some other hot-button issues -- such as reducing the $1.3 trillion U.S. deficit and Senate ratification of the stalled U.S.-Russian START nuclear arms treaty.

The key to bipartisanship during the next two years will be how Obama performs, said Dan Ripp of Bradley Woods, a private firm that tracks Washington for institutional investors.

"Obama is going to have to decide if he wants to play ball with Republicans, and right now we don't know if he does," Ripp said.

Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center, which conducts political polls, said surveys show voters overall want Obama and Republican leaders to solve problems together.

"But so far the signs are that this is going to be a very contentious relationship," Kohut said.

A Pew poll conducted a few days after the November 2 elections found that about 59 percent overall wanted Obama and Republican leaders to work together.

But big differences were found among Republican, Democratic and independent respondents.

Reflecting the views of the anti-establishment Tea Party movement, 71 percent of Republicans said their leaders should "stand up to Obama."

About 58 percent of independents said Obama and Republican leaders should work together. Democrats were split on whether Obama should work with Republican leaders or take them on.

WHITE HOUSE TALKS

While political gridlock is sometimes viewed as positive in financial markets when the economy is strong, logjam in Congress now might hinder the U.S. economic recovery.

Republican congressional leaders underscored the difficulty of agreeing on much of anything by declining a White House invitation for talks on November 18.

The meeting, including next House Speaker John Boehner and Democratic leaders, was pushed back to November 30. The gathering will set the tone for how the two sides will work together after Republicans take over the House in January but the initial signs are not good.

"We're anxious to hear what he now has to say," a top Republican aide said of Obama, noting that after the elections the president is no longer in a position to dictate terms to them. "We want to know if he heard the message from the election: create jobs and improve the economy."

A House Democratic aide said, "The meeting could be a good dress rehearsal for what happens next year. But right now our guys aren't in any mood to cut deals, I'm not sure that reality has set in yet" of an incoming Republican-led House.

Republicans vowed in the campaign to overturn Obama's healthcare reform and financial regulation overhaul but that might not happen with the Democrats still in control of the Senate.

One area they might agree is some spending cuts, although outgoing Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was emphatic in rejecting recommendations from the heads of a bipartisan commission on reducing the budget deficit.

Tuesday's White House meeting is certain to focus on efforts to extend tax cuts. They were signed into law by former President George W. Bush.

Republicans want all the tax cuts to be renewed, including those on incomes above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for families.

Obama and most Democrats favor renewing tax cuts only for income at or below those levels, saying to extend them for higher incomes would explode the deficit and do little, if anything, to create new jobs.

Despite a number of options -- including renewing all tax cuts, or only those up to $250,000, or raising the threshold to $500,000 or $1 million -- there is no sign of any immediate consensus.

Still, many ultimately expect a deal because allowing all the tax cuts to expire on December 31 would trigger voter anger at Democrats and Republicans.

"It's simply too much of a political hot potato to let them all expire," said congressional analyst Ripp.

A top Democratic aide predicted that the Senate would pass -- by year's end -- some sort of temporary tax extension that covers lower, middle and upper incomes.

"I think the House will then come back and pass it. They won't like, but they'll pass it," the aide said. The aide added, however, "That could change.

The aide said the House may refuse to pass any extension, putting off the issue until January when Republicans take control of the chamber.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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