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 McDonoughDenis Richard McDonoughLive coverage: Justice IG testifies before House on report criticizing FBI Ex-Obama chief of staff: Obama's Russia response was 'watered down' Former Obama officials launch advocacy group aimed at Trump's foreign policy MORE met Tuesday afternoon with several Republicans who dined privately with President Obama in March and April.

ADVERTISEMENT
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 CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCongress has five ways to show American power against Russia History argues for Democratic Senate gains GOP to White House: End summit mystery MORE (R-Tenn.) as he walked into the meeting in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. 

Other Republicans who attended include Sens. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteNew Hampshire governor signs controversial voting bill Former Arizona senator to shepherd Supreme Court nominee through confirmation process Shut the back door to America's opioid epidemic MORE (N.H.), Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsTrump: Obama didn't warn about Russia before election because 'it is all a big hoax' The president’s advisers, whom he ignores, must guard our national security Susan Rice: Trump’s motivations a ‘legitimate question’ MORE (Ind.), Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnThe real disease: Price transparency key to saving Medicare and lowering the debt Mr. President, let markets help save Medicare Pension insolvency crisis only grows as Congress sits on its hands MORE (Okla.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP strategist: Putin press conference 'made Trump look weak' Release of Carter Page surveillance documents reignites debate Graham: Warrant for Carter Page surveillance was 'a bunch of garbage' MORE (S.C.), Johnny IsaksonJohn (Johnny) Hardy IsaksonOvernight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria Senate to vote Monday on Trump's VA nominee GOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE MORE, (Ga.), Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonOn The Money: Trump 'ready' for tariffs on all 0B in Chinese goods | Trump digs in on Fed criticism | Lawmakers drop plans to challenge Trump ZTE deal Juan Williams: Putin wins as GOP spins GOP senator: Harley-Davidson is right to move some production overseas MORE (Wis.), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGOP to White House: End summit mystery US to provide additional 0M in defensive aid to Ukraine Senate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit MORE (Ohio) and John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenators share their fascination with sharks at hearing Helsinki summit becomes new flashpoint for GOP anger Senate weighs new Russia response amid Trump backlash MORE (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.