WASHINGTON (AP) — When President Barack Obama greets congressional leaders at the White House on Friday, an elaborate set of postelection rituals will be complete. Yet divided government's ability to attack the nation's economic woes is no clearer now than it has been for months.
Eventually, something's got to give in a country where voters are weary of gridlock and wearier still of high unemployment.
Or does it?
"I'm open to compromise and I'm open to new ideas," Obama said at his White House news conference on Wednesday. He stressed the importance of avoiding the "fiscal cliff," a double whammy of tax increases and spending cuts at the turn of the year.
Up to a point.
He referred more than once to his defeat of Republican Mitt Romney, saying, "I argued for a balanced, responsible approach, and part of that included making sure that the wealthiest Americans pay a little bit more."
"By the way, more voters agreed with me on this issue than voted for me," he added, a reminder to Republicans that some of their supporters, too, disagree with the party's position.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, also regularly stresses a willingness to reach across the aisle, citing the emergence of a "spirit of cooperation" since the election that he says bodes well for an agreement.
Like Obama, he avoids definitive answers to hypothetical questions. "I don't want to box myself in. I don't want to box anyone else in," he said recently.
Yet also like the president, Boehner has laid down a marker for the talks ahead. "Raising tax rates is unacceptable," he said referring to Obama's campaign-long call to allow rates to rise on incomes over $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples.
Both sides take credit for concessions, none of them particularly new.
In talks that came close to a deal in 2011, Obama said he was willing to make significant cuts in the growth of benefit programs like Medicare and Medicaid, infuriating liberals. Boehner spoke of as much as $800 billion in new revenue, angering conservatives.
The talks eventually collapsed.
Now White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says Obama will ask for $1.6 trillion in new taxes over a decade when the talks resume after Friday morning's meeting at the White House.
It's an opening bid, not a demand, part of the standard ritual for such occasions as is the rhetoric from both sides.
Barring legislation, taxes will rise on nearly everyone on Jan. 1, and a series of across-the-board spending cuts will take effect, a combination known as the "fiscal cliff" that many economists say could send the economy back into recession.
That sounds ominous, and if nothing else, neither party wants to bear the responsibility if it happens.
Yet government, particularly divided government, has a curious relationship with deadlines.
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