President Obama spent a highly unusual three days on Capitol Hill trying to generate some goodwill among rank-and-file lawmakers, but at the conclusion of the closed-door huddles it remained unclear whether face time over lobster salad and blueberry pie would do anything to repair Washington’s long-simmering rifts.
“I think we’ve had good conversations,” Obama said as he left the Capitol on Thursday. “But ultimately it’s a matter of the House and Senate, both caucuses, getting together and being willing to compromise. We’ll see what we can do.”
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Thursday: “This is going to take more than dinner dates and phone calls. It’s going to take the president and Senate Democrats rolling up their sleeves, making tough choices about how we solve our nation’s problems. No more tax hikes, no more gimmicks and no more putting off what needs to be done today.”
GOP senators emerged from a lunchtime meeting with Obama on Thursday in a buoyant mood, saying that he fielded nearly a dozen questions over 90 minutes regarding budget negotiations, immigration, entitlement programs, corporate taxes and federal regulation.
Republican senators have been a particular target of Obama’s so-called charm offensive, as a handful of members have expressed new willingness to accept new revenue as part of a broad debt deal. House Republicans are deeply opposed.
The president’s meeting Thursday followed an informal dinner with 12 Republican senators last week, and a series of one-on-one phone calls with members.
“I think this is more substantive than I anticipated,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), adding that he was pleasantly surprised that the discussion “got down into the weeds” of fiscal policy, with senators representing “every pasture” of the GOP’s ideological wings in their questions.
A key focus was asking Obama to tone down his rhetoric on entitlement programs, as Republicans cited an interview this week with ABC News in which he accused the GOP of wanting to balance the budget by “gutting” Medicare and Social Security. Obama, Roberts said, “tried to better define what he said to George Stephanopoulos.”
Throughout the exchange, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said his colleagues stressed that “presidential involvement” would be critical in the coming months, as Republicans encouraged Obama to take on members of his party on entitlements.
“I think a general theme that the president can take away from the meeting is that this idea — that somehow his involvement in tax policy and entitlement reform is harmful — is exactly backward,” Wicker said.
Later in the day, Obama told House Democrats — the most liberal caucus in Congress — that he will press to save money from entitlements, which are the largest contributor to future debt. But he promised that he would not do so unless Republicans back down on taxes.
“We’re not going to chase a bad deal,” he told them, according to people in the room. “We’re not in a short-term crisis.”
Pressed by liberal Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) about his support for changing the measurement of inflation when calculating Social Security benefits — a change opposed by many Democrats that would result in reducing benefits over time — Obama did not mince words.
According to Democrats who were there, he said he thinks that “chained CPI” might be a more accurate measure of inflation than what is now in use and did not back off his support for the idea, which he had reiterated to House and Senate Republicans. But for his allies, he had an addendum: It would not happen without significant Republican concessions on revenue, which are not necessarily likely.
“I haven’t heard anything from Republicans on revenue. So Keith, I think you can relax,” Obama said. Democrats took that as good-natured ribbing and laughed.
Several Senate Republicans said they asked for more meetings and smaller group huddles like a dinner Obama hosted for a dozen GOP senators last week — but there was no guarantee of follow-up meetings.
Sen. John Hoeven (N.D.), who attended the dinner, said he preferred the smaller dinner over a larger lunch.
“At dinner, it was an actual give-and-take, back-and-forth, more direct,” Hoeven said. “This [lunch] was good, too, but at dinner, we were there for two and three hours actually pushing ideas back and forth, which I thought was quite constructive.”
Paul Kane contributed to this report.
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