By Russell Berman and Molly K. Hooper - 03/14/13 12:37 AM EDT
House Republicans peppered President Obama with pointed questions on the budget, White House tours and the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline during an hourlong meeting Wednesday that yielded no major breakthroughs between the two divided parties.
While the exchanges during Obama’s first meeting in nearly two years with his chief opponents on Capitol Hill were polite, they only underscored the wide ideological gulf between the reelected Democratic president and the Republican House majority.
“It didn’t change anything at all. He didn’t offer anything new,” said Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), a close ally of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
The president told lawmakers he believed they had “about a nine-month window” to act on major budget priorities like overhauling the tax code, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said. On immigration, Obama spoke in frank political terms and sought to dispel Republican suspicions that he would rather see comprehensive legislation fail so he can use the issue as a hammer on the GOP in 2014.
A victory on immigration, he told the lawmakers, would help Republicans more than it would help Democrats in 2014. But, Cole quoted Obama as saying, “it needs to happen, and I want to work toward it.”
In a press conference afterward, Boehner thanked the president for coming, and described the meeting in classic Washington vernacular. “I think that we had a very frank and candid exchange of ideas and frankly I think it was productive,” he said.
Yet when asked what specifically came out of the meeting that was positive, the Speaker referred only to a tone that he called “respectful” and “very good.”
Boehner, who has often served as a conduit between the White House and his conference, said it was good for Republican lawmakers to hear from the president directly, even if the message was familiar.
“I heard what the president had to say. I’ve heard it before,” he said. “I thought it was good for all of our members to hear it, so they can have an understanding of where’s he’s coming from. We’ve got big problems in this country that need to be addressed. We’re willing to get them addressed. I hope the president continues his outreach.”
About the only news that Obama brought to House Republicans, multiple lawmakers said, was the announcement that there was a new pope. While billions outside the closed-door meeting learned through television about the historic selection, House Republicans learned from the president.
There’s “white smoke at the Vatican. We don’t know a name,” Obama told the members after receiving a message.
“Does that mean you’ll open up the White House for tours?,” asked Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.).
Over the laughter of the attendees, Obama chuckled. “No, but it means they’ll open the Vatican,” he said.
Leaving the meeting, a smiling Obama spoke briefly of the election of a pope, saying “we look forward to hearing about it.”
Of the meeting itself, Obama was terse. “It was good. I enjoyed it,” he told reporters. “It was useful.”
Obama earned a standing ovation from Republicans when he entered the meeting, the second of four sessions the president is having on Capitol Hill this week with House and Senate Republicans and Democrats, and there was only one moment of testiness, according to a number of GOP lawmakers in the room.
Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, asked why Obama ended the White House tours in light of the sequester, instead of the annual Christmas party or congressional picnic.
The president pointed blame at the Secret Service, saying they didn’t want to have to furlough staff and opted instead to cut non-essential tasks.
Members responded with “groans in disbelief,” said one Republican, prompting Obama to caution: “Now, now, let’s be respectful.”
“In fairness, the president said he’s looking into ways to get school groups in, and that would take less [security personnel] because you could check them in advance,” a separate lawmaker conceded, noting that it takes a lot of Secret Service to check in the dozens of tourists who take tours of the White House.
The most significant point of contention, however, remained the central impasse that has divided the White House and congressional Republicans for more than two years: the federal budget.
Under the leadership of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), House Republicans on Tuesday introduced a budget resolution that eliminates the federal deficit within a decade through steep spending cuts and entitlement reforms. Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), asking the first question of Obama, sought a commitment from the president for a 10-year balanced budget.
Obama said no.
“The president tactfully said ‘That’s not my priority, my priority is not slowing the recovery down and the long-term economic health of the country,’ ” Rogers said.
Obama instead talked about balancing the budget “in principle,” lawmakers said, meaning eliminating all deficits except for payments of interest on the debt.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said the president’s definition of a budget that balances “in principle” is like “telling a family that your budget balances without counting the interest on your credit card debt or your mortgage.”
“It matters,” Walden said.
Lawmakers also pressed Obama on the approval of the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline from Canada, a long-standing priority for Republicans who argue its construction would expand U.S. energy and create jobs. Obama said a decision will arrive soon, but lawmakers emerged split over whether or not he suggested that he’s leaning toward approval.
Obama lingered after the meeting to shake hands and chat privately with members. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) said he approached Obama afterward and asked the president “about conscience rights,” a reference to the administration’s decision to require most employers to cover birth control for their workers — something Fortenberry has fought tooth and nail.
“I did want to raise this because this is a deep concern for some of us,” Fortenberry said. He asked Obama “if there’s an opening to reconsider the administration’s position.”
Fortenberry did not reveal Obama’s response, but said he felt as if Obama took his concerns seriously.
Republicans told Obama he is welcome to address their conference “anytime,” although some doubted the usefulness of the discussion, saying it could improve — but not fix — the deficit of trust between the two sides.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who ran to unseat Obama in 2012, said the president “used a lot of big, fluffy generalities.”
“He called for bipartisanship as long as we agree with him and his positions,” she said. “He continually restated the obvious over and over. He said he was willing to do hard things, and he never said what those hard things were.”
Cole, however, said he thought members came out of the meeting “with a higher opinion of Obama than going into the meeting.”
“We’ll see what comes of it. That’s what matters,” said Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “The question is, is this just the latest chapter in the never-ending campaign?”
— Published at 2:28 p.m. and updated at 8:36 p.m.