U-turn takes Obama to lawmakers’ turf

President Obama is going only one place this week, but his conversations will go everywhere.

He’s heading to Capitol Hill again and again, but he intends to talk not only about deficit reduction and other big-ticket items but also many smaller-bore issues such as cybersecurity and increasing the minimum wage.

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Obama will visit lawmakers from both parties on their own turf for three consecutive days, an extraordinary shift for a president widely seen as aloof and disconnected from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue — even when he worked there as a senator for four years.

He will spend some time discussing the need to cut the budget deficit at the meetings beginning with Democrats on Tuesday, but will also touch on gun control, immigration reform and even the slow pace of judicial nominations, according to senior administration officials.

Obama will even offer a preview of sorts of his imminent trip to Israel, a White House official said.

Administration insiders say this week’s meetings are just a start, that Obama is determined to build new relationships with lawmakers in his second term. One senior official told The Hill that Obama is planning to meet with lawmakers “regularly.”

After meeting Senate Democrats on Tuesday, the president will switch to House Republicans on Wednesday and then to Senate Republicans and House Democrats in separate meetings on Thursday. Officials said while his message to all four groups will be similar, it will also be tailored to each caucus.

“His message to Republicans will be, ‘We’ve got a vigorous debate going on and we can compromise without you folding on the values that are fundamental to your policy perspective,’ ” one senior administration official said. “And his message to Democrats will be similar, that we’ll be able to compromise without giving up on everything we believe in.”

The meetings with the four conferences follow a dinner the president hosted last week with a dozen Senate Republicans at D.C.’s Jefferson Hotel, and a White House lunch with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the panel’s senior Democrat.

The outreach is a sharp turn for a president who for months habitually beat up his GOP opponents in preference to wooing them. Obama said he would not negotiate with Republicans on raising the debt ceiling, and he spent weeks on a public relations offensive blaming Republicans for the sequester.

“That’s something he should have been doing all along,” former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), who was co-chairman of Obama’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, said of the meetings in an interview with The Hill. “It’s something every president I served under did ... casual meetings, talking to both sides, just talking.

“It loosens things up, gets the juices going, makes it easier to deal with the big issues,” Simpson said. “These meetings are a good move. This is how it should work. It’s how it worked in the past.”

Obama’s tougher approach with the GOP had paid benefits, however. The White House was seen as winning the fight over the “fiscal cliff,” which resulted in tax rate hikes for wealthier households. The president’s stance on the debt ceiling also led to House Republicans agreeing to raise the ceiling through the spring.

But the benefits came to an abrupt halt on the sequester spending cuts, which went into effect on March 1. While the White House believes the public will blame congressional Republicans once they feel the negative effects of the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts, Obama has also seen his own poll numbers fall amid the sequester fight, which could be a factor in his latest charm offensive with Congress.

Administration officials insisted on Monday that Obama will seek to relay a message that he’s willing to compromise on certain issues near and dear to Democrats if Republicans are also willing to give a little on their demands.

He is expected to reiterate, for example, that he is willing to change the formula for how benefits under Social Security, Medicare and other programs are calculated for inflation to “chained-consumer price index,” which would lower growth in the programs. The president will say he’s prepared to do this in exchange for higher taxes.

Some observers have criticized the White House for going to Capitol Hill just to reiterate the talking points on the agenda Obama has focused on recently, particularly in his State of the Union address.

But senior administration officials don’t see it that way, highlighting the fact that some Republican lawmakers don’t know the details of Obama’s proposals. 

“It’s not a waste of time to spend a decent amount of time talking about some of the things he already has proposed,” said one senior administration official. 

Another senior administration official said Obama is going into the meeting with the intention of being “very pragmatic.”

The official said the lack of an imminent crisis should help both sides work together: “We’re not facing some imminent crisis — that gives us space and latitude to think a little broader on this stuff. Obviously we can’t negotiate with a leader who said he’s done negotiating with the president. But others have signaled they’re willing to talk. And now’s a unique time to see if we can strike some compromise.”

The debt ceiling will need to be raised again at the end of the summer, and Obama indicated at last week’s meeting at the Jefferson that he would like to reach a grand bargain on the deficit by the end of July. 

Several Republicans, including GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.), have expressed optimism about Obama’s overtures in recent days. 

And the White House is looking to capitalize on that recent outreach.

“We obviously feel good about those meetings,” one senior administration official said. “The president really did emphasize his feelings to find common ground and things that are important to people on the other side. And this effort doesn’t end this week.” 

— Joe Picard contributed to this report.


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