By Alexander Bolton and Daniel Strauss - 03/07/13 02:25 AM EST
Senate Republicans are more optimistic about the prospect of a grand bargain on the deficit after an intimate dinner with President Obama Wednesday evening in downtown Washington.
GOP senators say no new policy ground was broken as both sides held fast to their battle-tested positions on taxes and spending, but the meeting helped thaw frosty relations and improve the prospects of a deal eventually.
“I think really what he is trying to do is start a discussion and kind of break the ice and that was appreciated,” said Sen. Mike JohannsMike JohannsTo buy a Swiss company, ChemChina must pass through Washington Republican senator vows to block nominees over ObamaCare co-ops Revisiting insurance regulatory reform in a post-crisis world MORE (Neb.), one of twelve Republicans who broke bread with Obama. “Most of the meeting was spent on budget and [finding] a way forward. His goal is ours. We want to stop careening from crisis to crisis.”
Johanns said he is more optimistic of reaching a broad deficit-reduction deal this Congress.
“I think he’s very sincere. I think he wants to try to figure something out. Today was a good step and we’ll see what happens now,” he said.
Obama and his Republican guests ordered a variety of items off the haute-cuisine menu of the hotel’s restaurant, Plume, which features foie gras terrrine and lobster Thermidor.
Obama had a good time, despite his sometimes bitter policy differences with Republicans.
“The president greatly enjoyed the dinner and had a good exchange of ideas with the senators,” said a senior administration official.
The White House announced the president picked up the tab and paid for it out of his own pocket.
Sens. Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteGOP senator: Block cash payments to state terror sponsors The Trail 2016: Just a little kick Abortion rights group ads tie vulnerable GOP senators to Trump MORE (N.H.), Richard BurrRichard BurrDem groups invest big in Bayh in Ind. Senate race The Trail 2016: Fight night Poll finds races for president, Senate tight in North Carolina MORE (N.C.), Saxby ChamblissSaxby ChamblissWyden hammers CIA chief over Senate spying Cruz is a liability Inside Paul Ryan’s brain trust MORE (Ga.), Dan CoatsDan CoatsDem groups invest big in Bayh in Ind. Senate race Indiana Senate race tightens as Republicans take on Bayh Conservative group targets Evan Bayh on ObamaCare MORE (Ind.), Tom CoburnTom CoburnRyan calls out GOP in anti-poverty fight The Trail 2016: Words matter Ex-Sen. Coburn: I won’t challenge Trump, I’ll vote for him MORE (Okla.), Bob CorkerBob CorkerSyrian carnage likely to outlast Obama Overnight Defense: GOP leaders express concerns after 9/11 veto override | Lawmakers press for Syria 'plan B' | US touts anti-ISIS airstrikes Dem leaders defend overriding 9/11 bill veto MORE (Tenn.), Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamKerry: US 'on the verge' of suspending talks with Russia on Syria GOP leaders express reservations a day after 9/11 veto override McConnell opens door to changing 9/11 bill MORE (S.C.), John HoevenJohn HoevenOvernight Defense: White House threatens to veto Gitmo bill GOP senators fight female draft in defense bill Majority of GOP senators to attend Trump convention MORE (N.D.), Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonElection-year politics: Senate Dems shun GOP vulnerables Grassley accuses Reid of 'pure unfiltered partisanship' California to allow experimental drug treatments for the terminally ill MORE (Wis.), John McCainJohn McCainGOP lawmakers slam secret agreement to help lift Iran bank sanctions Kerry: US 'on the verge' of suspending talks with Russia on Syria Trump, Clinton to headline Al Smith dinner MORE (Ariz.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.) also sat down with Obama.
Hoeven said the group discussed ways to address $85 billion in automatic spending cuts known as sequestration, the budget, and pro-growth tax reform.
“We really did talk about a big deal that includes entitlement reform in a way that protects and preserves Social Security and Medicare but addresses the debt and the deficit,” he said. “What we really talked about is, ‘How do you get there?’ ”
The president and lawmakers are encouraged that Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress are moving together on legislation to avert a government shutdown at the end of March. The government-funding bill could be used to manage sequestration to soften its impact on government services.
They see upcoming Senate and House debates on budget resolutions and the expiration of the national debt ceiling in May as other opportunities for leaders to come together to discuss a broad deficit-reduction deal.
“That’s what we talked about today is how do we come together in a bipartisan way on this to truly address the debt and the deficit in this next four-month timeframe,” Hoeven said.
Obama reiterated his longstanding demand that Republicans agree to raise taxes as part of any agreement to reform entitlement programs.
Republicans agreed that a deficit deal should increase federal revenues, but argued those should come from economic growth as a result of streamlining the tax code, not from higher net levels of taxation.
Corker said the discussion focused on "a way forward on the fiscal issues."
"We talked about a lot of issues, but really it was just a constructive conversation about a way of moving ahead and solving our nation's fiscal issues in general," Corker said. "It was not a negotiation, if you will —although lots of issues were discussed."
Corker said the focus was more on reaching a grand bargain than simply turning off sequestration.
"It wasn't on that. It was on dealing with the big issue of solving our fiscal problem and it was a constructive meeting," Corker said. "It was a very positive meeting, it really was."
He described the meeting as congenial, despite the weeks of pounding Republicans have taken from Obama, who toured the country as part of a campaign to pressure Republicans to halt sequestration, which took effect last week.
"I think meetings like this are helpful and I think they build relationships," Corker added. “It was as social a meeting as you would find anywhere."
Toomey characterized the evening as “very cordial” and “constructive."
--This report was updated at 10:10 p.m.