White House, Senate Republicans spar at closed-door meeting

The White House is trying to jump-start budget talks with Senate Republicans to avoid a showdown over the raising the national debt ceiling later this year.

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough met Tuesday afternoon with several Republicans who dined privately with President Obama in March and April.

Much of the meeting was spent sparring over the severity of the federal deficit and the need to cut spending.

Obama reached out to Republican senators earlier this year in the hopes of forging a broad deficit-reduction deal, but Republicans in recent weeks have expressed frustration over the pace of the talks.

“The intensity is not where it needs to be right now,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) as he walked into the meeting in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. 

Other Republicans who attended include Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Dan Coats (Ind.), Tom Coburn (Okla.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Johnny Isakson, (Ga.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), Rob Portman (Ohio) and John Thune (S.D.).

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the White House budget director, and deputy White House chief of staff Rob Nabors and White House Legislative Affairs Director Miguel Rodriguez also attended.

McDonough called it a “good conversation.”

But some Republicans were less than enthusiastic about the prospects for a deal after spending much of the meeting arguing with White House officials.

A source familiar with the meeting said most of it was spent debating just how bad the nation’s budget picture looks.

“The White House doesn’t think we need to continue to look for ways to cut spending. Republicans want to look for spending cuts,” said the source, who requested anonymity. “One example of the total disagreement [is] the numbers and the assumptions each side is working off of.”

Democrats argue the need to cut the budget is less acute than it was in the last Congress, after the Congressional Budget Office lowered its projected federal deficit for 2013 to $642 billion.

Graham confirmed that the negotiations at this stage are partly to define the problem.

Republican lawmakers and White House officials discussed their differing projections of the severity of the nation’s budget problems.

Johnson said the president’s advisers presented their own numbers. The freshman senator, an outspoken budget hawk and member of the Senate Budget Committee, offered competing projections.

A source familiar with the meeting said Burwell’s numbers were “vastly different from the numbers that Ron Johnson had.”

Johnson said he was encouraged by the White House’s willingness to assess budget issues over the long term.

He said administration officials seemed receptive to using a 30-year budget window, as opposed to the traditional 10-year window, to best project future revenues and spending.

“I think everyone is thinking big,” Johnson said.

He said both sides were trying to identify points of commonality to “get the ball rolling.”

Portman said the negotiators are not yet ready to debate specifics such as reforming Medicare or Social Security, which Republicans say would need to be part of any deficit-reduction deal.

“I don’t know of any timeline,” he said of the chances of reaching a deal. He said both sides brought “information” on the scope of the problem.

“It’s slow, but there’s some progress,” said Thune.

The Obama administration has been pressing Congress to raise the debt ceiling, a move that it will likely have to be made this year. Republicans in Congress say any debt hike must be accompanied by significant spending reductions.

“We have some great problems, so it is going to take some more great discussions,” said Isakson.

Some Republicans gave the president credit for proposing in his budget plan a new formula to calculate Social Security benefits and healthcare spending cuts. 

Coburn, for example, praised Obama for his $400 billion in Medicare reforms in his budget.

White House officials and lawmakers hope to meet weekly or more frequently, according to Johnson. Another source said the next meeting could take place in a few weeks.

Obama had dinner with 12 Republican senators at the Jefferson Hotel in March and another dozen at the White House in April. All 24 lawmakers were invited to Tuesday’s meeting.

Republican senators have grumbled over the lack of a formalized process to hammer out a deal with Obama.

“We’ve made no progress. None,” a GOP senator told The Hill in late May. “There’s no process in place. Right now we just have 20 Republican senators meeting and talking to themselves.”

Some senior Republicans complain Obama is using the informal talks with lawmakers as an excuse to delay putting forth a detailed deficit-reduction plan.

“He’s playing them like a Stradivarius,” the lawmaker said of Obama and his GOP colleagues. “He can say, ‘We’re in talks’ and doesn’t have to put forward a plan.”

Democrats argue Obama put forward bold deficit-reduction proposals in his annual budget.