In November 2008, two months before moving into the White House, Obama invited his vanquished Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), and McCain’s trusted compadre, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), to meet with him in Chicago. The three sat around a coffee table in Obama’s transition headquarters, chewing over ways they might work together.
But over the next four years, there was little trace of partnership. McCain and Graham became two of Obama’s more vocal critics. Big deals proved elusive. Frustration on both sides escalated.
So it was that last week, Obama called on McCain and Graham to help him repair his relationships. At Wednesday’s dinner at the Jefferson Hotel, Obama sat between them, and they and other invited senators emerged hopeful that the polarizing dynamic was shifting.
“I think the American people would be heartened if they could have been a fly on the wall,” Sen. Ronald H. Johnson (R-Wis.) said. “It was a very pleasant, very genuine meeting. There was no contention. We all shied away from that.”
The senators generally praised Obama for the substance and depth of the conversation; there was only five or 10 minutes of small talk, they said.
“Where this goes, I have no idea,” Graham said. “But there was a common belief that entitlements need to be reformed and the tax code needs to be modernized — and the details may trip us up.”
Obama was emphatic on one point: The time for a deal is now. The White House sees this as an opportune moment both because the regular budget process is beginning in the Senate and House and because there is no immediate deadline pressure on both parties to act.
The pressure could return by midsummer, when the federal government again will reach its debt limit and Congress must vote whether to raise it or default.
Senate Democrats are surprised that Obama did not begin his outreach immediately after the November election, aides said. They worry that there may not be enough time before the debt-ceiling debate.
Obama wants to replace the across-the-board spending cuts that went into effect last week — known as the sequester — with a “grand bargain” budget deal. Obama has proposed finding savings in Medicare and Social Security in exchange for raising nearly $600 billion in new revenue by rewriting the tax code.
At Wednesday’s dinner, attendees said, Obama was specific about his ideas. He laid the same framework of spending cuts that he offered to Boehner in December in their negotiations to avert the year-end “fiscal cliff.” Obama’s offer included more than $500 billion in cuts to health programs in addition to the new revenue from capping tax deductions and eliminating loopholes.
Attendees said the president also endorsed a new way to calculating inflation that would result in reducing Social Security benefits over time — something many Democratic lawmakers strongly oppose.
“It was a full discussion,” Johnson said. “It was frank. It was honest. It wasn’t a negotiation. It was just really everybody sort of laying out the reality of what the situation is in terms of the issues we have to talk about.”
Yet within minutes after the dinner broke up, there was a stark reminder of how difficult it will be for the president and Republicans to find agreement. Johnson and two other attendees, Sens. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) and Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), shuttled from the Jefferson back to the Capitol. A filibuster was underway over the Obama administration’s drone policy, and they wanted to join in.
Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.