Obama sets end-of-July goal for bipartisan agreement on deficit

President Obama wants to complete a grand bargain to reduce the deficit by the end of July, an aggressive timeline coinciding with the expiration of the nation’s debt limit.

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Obama told a small group of Republican senators who had dinner with him Wednesday evening that a deficit-reduction deal needs to happen in the next four to five months, according to three sources familiar with the meeting.

A GOP lawmaker who met with Obama said the accelerated timeline has two advantages. Reaching a broad deficit deal by August would allow the president to avoid another messy standoff over raising the debt limit. The president, who has said he will not negotiate on the debt limit, believes it will be harder to forge a major deal in September and beyond, as both parties begin to position themselves for the 2014 mid-term election.

“The president said it would be good to do this in the next five months because that is when we’ll be considering the [continuing resolution] and the debt limit,” said the lawmaker. “After August you start getting ready for the mid-term.”

Another senator who attended the meeting and a third source familiar with the discussion confirmed that Obama voiced interest in striking a deal before August.

White House officials have previously made clear the timeline they are most interested in is the one for the budget resolutions the Senate and House will begin debating this month. They believe a deficit-reduction deal can be achieved by moving legislation through regular order.

“There is an opportunity here to do what some members of Congress and leaders have said they would like to do, and we agree, and that is return to some sense of normalcy here, regular order, engage in a budget process and negotiation and debate that hopefully produces a bipartisan compromise,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Thursday.

Carney declined to discuss details of the president's conversations with the senators.

But lawmakers say the chances are small of reconciling budgets drafted by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the chairmen of the Senate and House budget panels.

“I think it has to happen outside of regular order,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who joined Obama and 11 Republican colleagues for dinner at The Jefferson Hotel, when asked about the prospect for reaching a grand bargain.

Senators described the Wednesday’s meeting as friendly and constructive. Some of them emerged more optimistic of the prospect of a reaching a grand bargain this year.

“Last night was really to set the foundation for talks over the next four or five months,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said in an MSNBC interview Thursday.

“I don't think anybody came away from there expecting that we're going to come up with some grand bargain over the next month or six weeks, but I do think it was helpful, and I think it's the way this country ought to operate, and that is executive branch, sitting down with legislators, talking through issues,” he added.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ chief political strategist, declined comment on Obama’s timeline but said Republican colleagues appeared encouraged by the meeting.

“I talked to three or four of my Republican colleagues who were there and they were very positive about the whole tone of the meeting,” he said.

GOP lawmakers said the meeting broke no new policy ground. They said the president shared a deficit-reduction plan that was very similar to one posted on the White House website.

One senior GOP aide said Obama showed he is not really serious about a bipartisan deficit plan because he recycled his plan to raise about $600 billion by limiting tax deductions for the wealthy, which Republicans have already rejected.

“It was all about optics,” said the aide. “He’s doing this to show that he’s working with Republicans because there’s been a dip in his poll numbers.”

A Reuters/Ipsos online poll released this week showed Obama’s approval rating has dropped to 43 percent.

But Republicans who sat down with Obama dismissed suspicions from colleagues that his outreach effort is purely for show.

“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,” Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) told The Hill after leaving the hotel meeting.

GOP senators say the test will be whether the president continues to invite them to private meetings. Obama has indicated that is his intention.

“He indicated that he would be meeting with other senators at different times,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) who spoke with the president on the phone earlier this week.

A senior administration official suggested Wednesday that Obama is trying to work around Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) after months of fruitless discussions about a broad deal to cut spending and raise new tax revenues.

Obama did not give McConnell a heads up about his plan to invite a dozen rank-and-file GOP senators to dinner. Instead, the GOP leader heard about it from colleagues.

Alexander said if Obama is trying to circumvent the GOP leadership, it won’t work. But building support within the Republican conference for a grand bargain could make it easier to win McConnell’s sign-off later this year.

“He can’t go around the leaders but there’s nothing wrong with him developing a good relationship and listening to rank-and-file members of the Senate. In fact it helps the leaders,” Alexander said. “The leaders in some way have to follow their caucuses. They can only lead so far.”

Senate liberals, however, are leery of Obama’s latest overtures to Republicans.

At a press conference Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) urged Obama to remember his pledge from the 2008 presidential campaign not to cut Social Security benefits.

Sanders, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and a group of Democratic liberals introduced legislation to extend the solvency of Social Security by applying payroll taxes to all income over $250,000.