Lawmakers return to Washington today amid a potential thaw in the U.S. fiscal policy dispute, as President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner attempt to make a deal to prevent spending cuts and tax increases from taking effect.

Obama sounded conciliatory notes at a Daimler AG plant in Michigan yesterday. In his first comments since meeting with Boehner Dec. 9 at the White House, the president didn't repeat frequent complaints about Republicans holding tax cuts for most Americans "hostage" because they oppose higher rates for wealthiest, and said he was ready to come to an agreement. Since Boehner complained Dec. 7 that Obama had wasted a week, statements from the speaker's office have been milder, too.

"There is a change in tone, obviously," Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey, said in an interview. After building public support for higher tax rates for the highest earners, he said, Obama is negotiating and "preparing his own party for a possible deal" by sending signals about his willingness to cut entitlement programs including Medicare and Medicaid.

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