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Republicans blast Obama budget but signal willingness to work with Democrats
"Tell me where I need to go and who I need to meet with to find a way to save Social Security," he demanded of Lew. "This is the year. There are a lot of Republicans who understand entitlements have to be put on the table."
The Senate is fertile ground for ambitious talks. A group of senators from both parties is working to advance a budget strategy offered last year by Obama's fiscal commission, which won the support of key Senate liberals and conservatives. That proposal - which calls for politically perilous moves such as raising the retirement age, charging wealthy seniors more for Medicare and eliminating cherished but expensive tax breaks - would save $4 trillion over the next decade, four times the savings in Obama's 10-year budget projections.
The prognosis is less clear in the more conservative House, where Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is struggling to corral an independent-minded caucus packed with 87 newcomers. For now, House leaders are focused on the short term and on fulfilling their campaign pledge to slash government spending this year.
On Tuesday, the House began debating a temporary spending bill that would fund the government through Sept. 30 but provide $61 billion less than agencies had been expecting. House leaders plan to hold a final vote on the legislation by week's end, when they are scheduled to leave for a week-long recess. More than 400 amendments to the measure have been filed, and GOP leaders said the chamber will vote on as many as possible.
The current continuing resolution, approved in December, will expire March 4, leaving Congress little time to resolve vast partisan differences. Democrats have accused Republicans of taking a "meat cleaver" to the government, seeking "draconian" cuts that could damage vital services, eliminate hundreds of thousands of federal jobs and destabilize the economic recovery.
Meanwhile, Republican members of the House Budget Committee hammered Lew for Obama's inability to deliver the immediate cuts they say their constituents are demanding. Although House Republicans want to cut $61 billion from domestic programs this year, Obama's budget would trim just $6 billion from such programs - and would do so next year.
They also complained that Obama has not eliminated budget deficits, setting an exceptionally high standard for the spending plan that House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is due to assemble this spring.
After Obama's news conference, House leaders vowed in a statement that Ryan's plan will offer a vision for tackling entitlement programs. "Our budget will lead where the president has failed, and it will include real entitlement reforms so that we can have a conversation with the American people about the challenges we face and the need to chart a new path to prosperity."
Staff writers Brady Dennis, Paul Kane and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.