WASHINGTON — Congress' rank-and-file members, who will determine in less than seven weeks whether the nation avoids the looming fiscal cliff, are showing a new willingness to negotiate and compromise — a message their leaders will carry today to President Barack Obama.
But the lawmakers will also warn, in the first post-election White House talks aimed at crafting an agreement, that they and the administration have a shared history that has to be overcome.
Washington has been paralyzed over the past two years by partisanship, and the scars of the battles are still raw.
What's different now is that lawmakers heard the message from voters last week: Stop bickering and get the economy moving again. And don't wait to do something until hours before the Bush-era tax cuts expire Dec. 31 and automatic spending cuts take effect two days later.
Senators and House members are suggesting that almost everything is negotiable — spending cuts, tax rates, Medicare, Medicaid — and there's widespread agreement that any deal has to be a combination of cuts in spending and increases in tax revenues.
Even the most contentious point, the top tax rates, appears to be on the table.
“People are really eager to get an agreement. I've rarely seen a mood like it,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who is retiring.
“There's a willingness to give serious consideration to new revenue that wasn't there before the election,” agreed Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
Lawmakers are listening to the voters.
Two out of three Americans say that going over the fiscal cliff will have a mostly negative impact on the economy. Sixty percent say it would have a mostly negative impact on their own financial situation, according to a post-election poll by the Pew Research Center.
First, the key players have to get beyond past disputes. The major figures at today's White House meeting and in the weeks ahead will be the same people who have fought over the past four years: House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
The stories of deals almost done have been well told, notably the Obama-Boehner talks in 2011 to get a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction. Those talks went to the brink of agreement, then fell apart when it became clear the rank and file in Congress in both parties would not accept it.
This time the stage is set for more comity. In the week and a half since the election, most leaders, including Obama, have sent subtle but meaningful signals that they're willing to soften their positions.
At the president's press conference Wednesday, he suggested that he might be willing to bargain on his often-stated goal of raising the top income tax rate from 35 percent to 39.6 percent for high incomes.
“With respect to the tax rates, I just want to emphasize I am open to new ideas,” he said, and White House officials later explained that he would consider a top rate of 37 percent or 38 percent — presumably as long as deductions were also limited, so those taxpayers still would pay more than they do now.
Republicans welcome the change but also warn that, despite the calmer mood, “that doesn't mean there's wholesale desire to raise taxes,” Crapo said.
Any agreement will ultimately need votes from both parties to win approval, and Republicans will insist on meaningful changes and cuts to programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
Republicans have a 240-190 advantage in the House, but an estimated 50 Republicans are considered hard-liners unlikely to vote for any legislation that increases revenue.
About 50 Democrats are also seen as difficult to budge. They will insist on more taxes for the wealthy and fewer cuts in social safety-net programs.
Democrats control 53 of the 100 Senate seats, but getting seven Republicans to go along is not seen as a problem — as long as the partisan rhetoric doesn't get too heated.
So far, it hasn't.
“The president said we get the revenue if we limit the (tax) deductibles. I'm willing to look at the raw numbers,” said Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas. His Texas Republican colleague, Rep. Bill Flores, also spoke in conciliatory terms.
“I feel optimistic we've got the tools to fix it,” he said. The House's approach earlier this year — continuing the current rates for a year — was the right approach, Flores said.
Obstacles to compromise are still prevalent. On Wednesday, Obama and Republican senators engaged in sharp rhetorical warfare over whether U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice was qualified to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.
And lawmakers elected in carefully drawn House districts where conservatives or liberals dominate were less inclined to compromise.
“I have a constituency and I ran on this platform” of no new taxes, said Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Texas. “Raise taxes on the top 2 percent is all I've really heard. I'm not going to agree to that. It's a nonstarter for me and the district I represent.”
On the other side of the political spectrum was Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass.
“You have to be emboldened by this president and his stature. He won the election convincingly,” he said.
The potential for majorities, though, seemed to be there for the wooing. As Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, put it: “Everybody who won had to have gotten the message to work together.”