President Obama is greeted by Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine), John Cornyn… (Drew Angerer / POOL/EPA )
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.)