Amid Obama’s ‘charm offensive,’ a quest for common ground


President Obama is greeted by Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as he arrives at the Capitol to meet with Senate Republicans on March 14. (Drew Angerer / POOL/EPA)
March 15, 2013

After nearly three hours of poking and prodding from Republicans, President Obama emerged from his so-called charm offensive on Capitol Hill with few bruises and, in some corners, a bit of goodwill.

When Obama last visited the Senate GOP caucus, in 2010, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) exited the meeting in a rage. He told reporters Obama needed “to take a Valium” and, reading from his notebook, recounted several of the president’s “pretty thin-skinned” moments. This week, Roberts emerged from Thursday’s 90-minute huddle with the president professing surprise at the “more substantive” nature of the meeting. He declared that Obama had a “genuine intention” of finding middle ground on a broad fiscal deal.

And this time, he also declined to share a single detail from the five pages of notes he took.

The Roberts turnabout and the potential detente it suggests was exactly the kind of result Obama was hoping for when he launched three days of face-to-face engagement on Capitol Hill last week. But for all the substantive discussion, there were no substantial breakthroughs as all sides dug in for what is expected to be a long slog through the budgetary maze that is expected to last well into the summer.

Next week, the Republican-controlled House expects to pass an austere budget built around huge savings from entitlement programs, a dramatically different approach from the Senate Democratic plan that is anchored on $1 trillion in new taxes and modest changes to entitlements.

“Other than that, we’re close,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), joked Wednesday as he left the 90-minute meeting the House GOP held with Obama.

In short, no one believes the more than two-year standoff on taxes and entitlements is any closer to resolution than before the offensive began. Obama leaves Tuesday for a trip to Israel, and Congress will adjourn Thursday for a two-week spring break, meaning there won’t be another in-person meeting between lawmakers and Obama until at least mid-April.

Still, there is an emerging consensus that the effort was not a waste of time and that more meetings — perhaps in smaller groups in a more work-friendly setting — are ahead. “I don’t think this was a one-off thing,” Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), a member of House leadership, said Friday.

Now, with a reelection under his belt and no campaigns of his own to wage, Democrats said, Obama signaled this week that he wanted to go to the Republican turf, take lawmakers’ questions and speak directly to them about his proposals.

So much of Obama’s talks with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) in 2011 and last year were done behind closed doors that some rank-and-file Republicans heard about the president’s offers only through the speaker’s detail-averse presentations or from conservative news outlets.

Leaving the Wednesday meeting with House Republicans, Rep. Kevin Brady (Tex.) said the president was very specific in offering to use a different formula for cost-of-living adjustments, meaning less-generous Social Security benefits, and to increase Medicare premiums on higher-income seniors.

“He is willing to consider them in the context of higher tax revenue,” said Brady, a veteran not involved in any of the high-stakes talks of the previous two years.

Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), an ally of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), said he has recommended smaller group settings in the White House on fiscal issues with lawmakers. While upset that Obama does not agree with Ryan’s plan to balance the budget in 10 years, he pushed Obama to try to find some common issues on longer-term changes for Medicare that might show even small progress on fiscal issues.

A sustained effort to engage Congress would distinguish this outreach initiative from previous ones. When he first came into office, Obama hosted a select group of rank-and-file lawmakers to a Super Bowl party. Others were courted with rides on Air Force One, and a few veteran lawmakers meeting with then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel received pop-in visits by Obama that were made to look accidental.

That nascent effort fell away soon after every House Republican opposed Obama’s economic stimulus package and just three Senate Republicans backed it. (Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is the only Republican left in Congress who backed the 2009 bill.)

This charm offensive was an offshoot of a meeting Obama held with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C) that was ostensibly about their work on a bipartisan immigration bill. Graham urged the president to use the social powers of the presidency in order to bring the opposing party to a middle ground — something the father of two younger children has been averse to do, even with Democratic allies. On the thorniest issue — the federal debt approaching $17 trillion — still seems a bridge too far for both sides. Republicans told Obama that it’s his responsibility to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to educate the public about the long-term solvency issues facing Medicare and Social Security, taking on his liberal base in the process.

Within days, Graham was tasked with coming up with a guest list, leading to a sit-down dinner at the Jefferson with Obama and 12 Republican senators that served as the formal kick-off for the charm offensive.

More than a week later, Sen. Ronald H. Johnson (R-Wisc.), a hard charging conservative elected in the 2010 tea party wave, was still singing the president’s praises for making the effort.

“That’s a necessary first step. And I appreciate the fact that the president is reaching out. A cynic could say we should have done that four years ago, and probably should have. But listen, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt,” Johnson, one of the dinner attendees, told Bloomberg Government’s Capitol Gains on Friday.

“He needs to become Moses and lead us in a particular direction with a number of us following or walking along with him and see if he can get a result,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said after the Obama meeting.

Yet, in his final meeting of the week, with House Democrats, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said Obama reassured his allies that he had no intention of yielding on entitlement reform unless Republicans gave in to higher taxes at the same time.

“I’m not about to give this away unilaterally,” Obama told the group, according to Connolly.

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