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Reid: Congress Faces 'Enormous Challenges' Ahead

With most of the elections settled, the winners must now determine how they will deal with the impending "fiscal cliff" of spending cuts and tax increases that happen in two months. David Welna reports.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Post-election promises of bipartisanship pepper the rhetoric of congressional leaders today, promises to work together with urgency.

SENATOR HARRY REID: The election's over, and we have enormous challenges ahead of us that are right here, and we have to sit down and go to work on it now.

BLOCK: That's the Senate majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid. His words were echoed by the top Republican in the House, John Boehner.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: Let's challenge ourselves to find the common ground that has eluded us. Let's rise above the dysfunction and do the right thing together for our country.

BLOCK: According to both men, doing the right thing means tackling the so-called fiscal cliff we're approaching at the end of the year. And as NPR's David Welna reports, these congressional leaders have their work cut out for them.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: President Obama issued the first call to action as he celebrated his re-election last night before a boisterous crowd in Chicago.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You voted for action, not politics as usual. You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours. And in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of both parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together.

WELNA: That message seemed to resonate with at least one Republican, the senator-elect and fiscal hawk from Arizona, Congressman Jeff Flake.

REPRESENTATIVE JEFF FLAKE: I know that we need to work across the aisle. Sometimes the changes that have to be made in terms of so-called entitlement programs, things that we're going to have to do to get a budget that actually sticks, sometimes those are easier with a divided government because both parties have to buy in.

WELNA: Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell struck a similar note. He issued a statement today, saying if the president is willing to move to the political center, McConnell and other Republicans would be there to meet him halfway. And he wasn't the only one promising cooperation.

REID: It's better to dance than to fight. It's better to work together. Everything doesn't have to be a fight.

WELNA: That's Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, whose Democratic caucus gained two more members last night. Reid dismissed suggestions by Republicans that the lame duck session of Congress that begins next week is not the best time to come up with a grand bargain to avert the so-called fiscal cliff looming in January when popular tax cuts expire and mandatory across-the-board spending cuts kick in.

REID: Waiting for a month, six weeks, six months - that's not going to solve the problem. We know what needs to be done. And so I think that we should just roll up our sleeves and get it done.

WELNA: Reid pointed to yesterday's vote as a mandate for doing what he and President Obama have been calling for, a fix to the fiscal impasse that includes raising taxes on the wealthiest to generate more revenue. Asked whether this put him at odds with House Speaker John Boehner, who's opposed making the rich pay more, Reid said he'd already spoken with Boehner, though he would not say what they discussed.

REID: I have a fine relationship with him. My staff works well with his staff. And this isn't something that I'm going to drawing lines in the sand. He's not going to draw any lines in the sand, I don't believe, and I think we need to work together.

WELNA: Hours later, Boehner convened a news conference at the Capitol.

BOEHNER: We're willing to accept new revenue under the right conditions. What matters is where the increased revenue comes from and what type of reform comes with it. Does the increased revenue come from government taking a larger share of what the American people earn through higher tax rates? Or does it come as a byproduct of growing our economy, energized by a simpler, cleaner, fairer tax code with fewer loopholes and lower rates for all?

WELNA: Boehner left no doubt that raising taxes is not the way Republicans plan to foster economic growth, a position that puts him squarely at odds with leading Democrats. The House speaker also seems in no rush to strike the grand bargain that Democrats want to tackle in the remaining seven weeks of this Congress.

BOEHNER: We won't solve the problem of our fiscal imbalance overnight and certainly won't do it in a lame duck session of Congress. And it won't be solved simply by raising taxes or taking a plunge off the fiscal cliff.

WELNA: But that plunge off the fiscal cliff would appear all but inevitable if the parties that battled on the campaign trails and airwaves all fall cannot find some common ground. If nothing is done, taxes will go up for everyone in January, and the economy could take a hit as government spending is slashed. Meeting one another halfway might sound sensible, but actually doing it will require more than talk. David Welna, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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