Senate Republicans Urge Obama to Stay Engaged on Deficit

Senate Republicans told President Barack Obama that the only way to reach a broad deficit-reduction deal is to work with them, not campaign against them.

Wyoming Senator John Barrasso said Republicans told Obama at the roughly 90-minute meeting today that he “needs to be here, working side-by-side with Congress” to find changes to entitlement programs that both parties can accept.

“It’s better if the president is here, fully engaged with us, than traveling around the country saying Congress isn’t doing its job,” Barrasso said after the meeting, adding that Republicans also told Obama “that he’s the one with the bully pulpit” and he should use it to inform the public about the need to make changes to Medicare and Social Security.

Obama’s meeting with Senate Republicans was followed by a session with House Democrats and caps three days of talks on Capitol Hill in which the president pressed his case for a deficit-reduction deal. Republicans, insisting on spending cuts, are dug in against demands by Obama and his fellow Democrats that tax increases be a significant part of an agreement.

“The president is clear, no revenue, no change in the entitlements,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters after Obama met with her caucus.

The president took about a dozen questions from senators and touched on topics including immigration and energy, Republicans said.

‘Indispensable Role’

Obama “needs to be directly involved, not as we used to say, leading from behind,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, told reporters after the meeting. “So he’s got an indispensable role to play and we hope he will decide to step up.”

The presidential charm offensive began last week when Obama made a round of calls to Senate Republicans and dined with about a dozen of them at a posh restaurant a few blocks from the White House.

North Dakota Senator John Hoeven said last week’s dinner was “a more direct” conversation than today’s.

“This was good too, though,” he said.

Republicans “tried to stress that it’s extremely helpful for the president to weigh in on some of these big-time issues,” Kansas Senator Pat Roberts said. “We have to have him if we’re going to get anything done.”

‘Bloated’ Spending

The distance between Democrats and Republicans over fiscal policy remains wide and several Republicans said their discussion with Obama didn’t yield any policy breakthroughs.

“After today’s meeting, it is clear to me that balancing our budget and cutting bloated Washington spending are not President Obama’s top priorities,” Texas Senator John Cornyn, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, said in a statement.

“He stayed pretty closely to his talking points,” Utah Senator Mike Lee responded when asked whether there was any progress toward agreement on tax breaks that could be eliminated as part of a deficit deal.

“We didn’t get into details,” said Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, who was a member of a bipartisan group known as the Gang of Six that tried in 2011 and 2012 to strike a broad deficit deal.

Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, said Obama’s meetings this week were set to get lawmakers “into the grand-bargain context,” adding that Republicans will view the federal debt-limit increase “as the next showdown.”

‘Tightrope’ Walking

“He’s trying to carefully walk this tightrope of providing leadership but not being bossy when it comes to a deal,” Durbin told reporters today.

Republicans control 45 Senate votes, enough to block the 60-vote supermajority needed to force floor votes on major legislation.

Following Obama’s meeting yesterday with the House Republican conference, his first in three years, Speaker John Boehner and others who attended voiced disappointment over Obama’s opposition to their plan to balance the U.S. budget in a decade and his insistence on another tax increase as the price for overhauling entitlement programs.

Boehner told reporters today that it would take more than “dinner dates and phone calls” for Obama to find common ground with Republicans.

‘My Way’

“The president’s idea of compromise is just do it my way,” Boehner said. “That is just not going to work.”

In another sign of the difficulty Obama faces in brokering a deal, the president met resistance March 12 in a session with senators of his own party. Several Democrats, including Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who attended the closed-door session said Obama rebuffed their demands for an assurance that Medicare and Social Security benefits wouldn’t be touched in any “grand bargain.”

Instead, Obama has insisted that Democrats should be open to changes in entitlement programs.

House Democrats today said Obama provided reassurances that he won’t pursue any deal with Republicans on changing entitlements until they are willing to use revenue from ending tax breaks to cut debt rather than lower tax rates.

Obama told fellow Democrats that he challenged Senate Republicans to identify a single “tax loophole” they “might be willing to close for this great generational challenge of the deficit and debt,” Illinois Representative Jan Schakowsky told reporters. Obama reported that “there was really no response from the Republicans,” she said.

Tax Revenue

Obama was clear that “he is not going to chase a bad deal,” that didn’t include more tax revenue for deficit reduction, Schakowsky said.

Obama’s meetings with lawmakers coincide with lawmakers’ unveiling this week of competing fiscal 2014 budget blueprints and with the Senate’s consideration of a stopgap spending measure to fund the government through Sept. 30.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the chamber will try to wrap up the spending measure next week and avert a government shutdown after current funding expires March 27. The legislation leaves in place $85 billion in automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, that took effect March 1 while seeking to blunt their effects on the Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Homeland Security, Justice and Veterans Affairs departments.

House and Senate leaders have been in close contact on the measure to try to avoid snags ahead of final passage, which could come next week in the House.

Budget Blueprints

Also next week, the chambers will debate their budget blueprints. The Senate Budget Committee today resumed consideration of the proposal laid out by Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, which would generate almost $1 trillion in new revenue while protecting Medicare and expanding Medicaid health coverage for more low-income Americans.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, this week proposed balancing the government’s books in 10 years by cutting $4.6 trillion.

Each proposal drew strong opposition from across the aisle.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, today described the Democratic budget plan as a “left-wing manifesto masquerading as a responsible budget.”

“Their proposed budget doubles down on the same wasteful stimulus spending we already know doesn’t work,” he said.

Tax Increases

Murray’s plan includes $100 billion in economic stimulus and calls for a fast-track process to increase taxes for top earners and large corporations that would bypass the need to muster 60 votes.

Another difference between the Republican and Democratic approaches centers on how each would allocate added revenue from curbs on tax exemptions.

Ryan’s plan would use new revenue to lower rates for individuals and corporations as part of a rewrite of the U.S. tax code. Murray’s plan would apply savings from ending tax breaks toward $1.85 trillion in deficit reduction over a decade.

Ryan’s budget contains elements that Democrats are committed to opposing: repeal of the 2010 health-care law, which is set to take full effect next year, and partial privatization of Medicare by allowing Americans now younger than 55 to buy private insurance with a government subsidy.

Charles Schumer of New York, the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat, today said Ryan’s budget “filled with deceptive gimmicks, far-fetched assumptions and phony arithmetic.”

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