Obama, GOP senators agree to exchange paper in debt talks

President Obama and a dozen Republican senators he met with Wednesday evening agreed the two sides should begin exchanging papers to explore a possible deficit-reduction deal, according to two lawmakers who attended.
 
But both sides acknowledged over dinner at the White House they have only modest expectations for success.
 

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One lawmaker who attended the dinner in the Old Family Room said the consensus at the meeting was that the chances of a grand bargain on the deficit are “less than 50-50.”
 
The president and the GOP senators nevertheless decided “it would be good to begin exchanging paper,” said the lawmaker.
 
It was discussed that the two sides should exchange written proposals outlining how far they are willing to go to raise new tax revenues and reform costly entitlement programs.
 
A second senator who attended the meeting confirmed that account.
 
“We’re realistic about what the chances are, but we have an obligation to try,” said the lawmaker.
 
The dinner started at 6:41 p.m. Wednesday and lasted until about 9:17 p.m., according to the White House pool reports.
 
Obama walked into the room, took off his coat and told his guests that he had cleared his schedule for them. He then went around the room and heard comments from each of the 12 assembled senators, according to one person in the room.
 
The White House did not respond to a request for comment about the proposed exchange of paper.
 
It was the second dinner Obama held with a group of Republican senators in an effort to lay the groundwork for a broad deal on deficit reduction. 
As at the March 6 dinner, Obama and the lawmakers agreed that a deal needs to get done by August if it’s going to happen.
 
“The time is between now and August,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who attended the meeting.
 
Alexander said he thinks Obama is serious about forging a deal, despite widespread skepticism in the GOP about his motives.
 
“The president obviously has devoted a lot of time to this. At least as far as Republican senators know because he’s had two dinners, he’s been to lunch with us, he’s called a number on the telephone,” Alexander said.
 
The GOP senators credit Obama for being realistic about the chances for success.
 
“He’s also being realistic. These are just very tough issues. We have big differences of opinion, but we’re looking to see if there’s a way we can put something together,” Alexander said. “It’s essential on this issue for the president to lead and he’s taken some important steps.”
 
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Thursday that the president showed his willingness to compromise in the budget plan he unveiled Wednesday, which included a proposal to switch to the chained-CPI formula for calculating increases in Social Security benefits, generating $230 billion in savings.
 
Obama’s blueprint also called for $400 billion in cuts to spending on federal health programs, including $270 billion in savings from Medicare.
 
“It's incumbent upon Republicans to do the same, to, in the spirit of compromise and a desire for progress, to meet the president halfway,” Carney said.
 
Republicans who met with Obama Wednesday applauded the concession on Social Security, but told the president bluntly that he needs to go further to overhaul social safety-net programs.
 
“That alone won’t be enough,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who attended the meeting, said of Obama’s concession on the Social Security adjustment formula. “Obviously that’s a part of the reform concepts that have been discussed in the past. In that regard, it’s a helpful first step. I think those programs, in order to save them, require a real comprehensive approach to reforming and I hope we’ll be open to that.”
 
Rubio said lawmakers delivered that message directly to Obama.
 
The president and lawmakers also discussed immigration reform, but deficit reduction and entitlement reform comprised the primary focus of the meeting.
 
Obama asked Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) to create the guest list.
 
“I tried to have a good-cross section geographically so it reflected the conference,” he said.
 
Isakson declined to comment on any of the subjects discussed.
 
“We had a great discussion. We had a candid discussion. It was the type off-the-record, no-agenda type meeting you enjoy going to, where you express yourself, listen to others express themselves and move forward,” he said.
 
Isakson said the menu included sliced rib-eye steak and salad. A White House press pool report said the president and his guests also ate sautéed vegetables.
 
Republican Sens. John Boozman (Ark.), Susan Collins (Maine), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Deb Fischer (Neb.), Orrin Hatch (Utah), Pat Roberts (Kan.), John Thune (S.D.) and Roger Wicker (Miss.) also attended.
 
“The president enjoyed a constructive, wide-ranging discussion with Republican senators that included reducing the deficit in a balanced way, reforming our broken immigration system and adopting common-sense measures to reduce gun violence,” a White House official said in a statement Wednesday night.
 
The official said the president “looks forward to continuing bipartisan conversations in the weeks and months ahead.”