Obama entitlement offer gets warmer reception from centrist GOP senators

Centrist GOP senators are praising President Obama’s decision to include entitlement cuts in the 2014 budget he will unveil Wednesday, saying it makes them more optimistic a deficit-reduction deal can be reached.

The reaction from the senators, many of whom are the targets of Obama’s “charm offensive,” stands in contrast to the chilly reception Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) gave to Obama’s budget, which also include new tax hikes.

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While the centrists said the proposals in Obama’s budget do not go far enough on entitlements, they credited him with moving toward Republicans.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), one of 12 Senate Republicans who dined with Obama at the Jefferson Hotel last month, said the president appeared to be living up to his commitment to GOP members on dealing with entitlements.

“The president has signaled he is willing to do that and I think it’s a start,” said Hoeven, who added that he has been speaking with Obama about additional steps that could be taken.

Obama has held a series of small-group meetings with congressional Republicans and has also reached out to individual members for one-on-one meetings and calls. It’s part of a White House effort to work around Republican leaders in the House and Senate to deal directly with the GOP rank and file.

The president will dine on Wednesday night with a dozen Republican senators at the White House. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) is organizing the dinner. The full list of invitees has not been released.

Isakson praised leaked details of the Obama budget.

“Anytime you talk about things that move you toward a solution, it’s a gain. Hopefully we can find areas we can agree. Hopefully the president will prove over time that this is a sincere effort,” he said. “Every deal takes one step at a time, this is the first one.”

Isakson said Tuesday he intends to steer the White House discussion on Wednesday toward the debt.

“It’s an open agenda, but obviously the country’s biggest problem is the debt and deficit. That is certainly what I intend to talk about,” he said.

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) described the Obama proposal as offering a “glimmer” of hope for a broad deal.

“I don’t believe the budget proposal went far enough and I don’t understand the timing at all, but having said that, I respect him for taking a stand on something that’s controversial,” said Johanns, who also attended the Jefferson dinner. “It’s a glimmer, a glimmer.”

Johanns also said he respected Obama for making a proposal that has been criticized by his political base.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), another senator who attended last month’s dinner with the president, said the proposal is a step in the right direction.

“It is nowhere near what we need to do, but I will give him credit,” he said.

The left reacted furiously on Friday to the news that Obama would include in his budget so-called “chained CPI,” a formula that would cut benefits under Social Security and other programs by more slowly hiking benefits for inflation.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) distanced himself from the Obama budget when asked about the chained CPI proposal.

He called the Senate Democratic blueprint approved by the chamber a “good budget” that sets priorities.

“I think they’re priorities of the American people and the Democrats,” he said. “The president has his budget.”

The best chance for a deficit-reduction deal is a necessary hike to the debt ceiling later this summer. Obama is demanding tax hikes as part of the package, and Wednesday’s budget is expected to include a proposal for $600 billion in new taxes.

Republicans say they won’t agree to more taxes after the recent “fiscal cliff” deal that raised tax rates on annual household incomes above $450,000.

They also say the president must do more on entitlements.

Boehner and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) have given a harsh response to Obama’s proposals.

“So, apart from reports of a modest entitlement change — and we’ll need to see the details on that — it sounds like the White House just tossed last year’s budget in the microwave,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Tuesday.

Boehner on Friday said Obama’s proposals on entitlements were minimal and should not be contingent on more tax hikes.

“If the president believes these modest entitlement savings are needed to help shore up these programs, there’s no reason they should be held hostage for more tax hikes,” he said. “That’s no way to lead and move the country forward.”

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said chained CPI is a “good idea” and a hopeful sign, but said what he’s heard about Obama’s budget overall is discouraging.

“One of the concerns I have is that there is a trillion dollars of new taxes proposed and the net deficit reduction is only $600 billion, which means there is a net growth in spending and it’s a tax and spend budget over all,” he said.

White House press secretary Jay Carney on Monday reiterated that Obama’s budget “represents a good-faith attempt to reach a deal with Congress.”

Carney said if the budget is enacted, it will reduce the deficit by $1.8 trillion. If that sum is added to the $2.5 trillion in cuts implemented by the 2011 appropriations bills and the 2011 debt-ceiling deal, the president would have signed into law $4.3 trillion in cuts.

Republicans say this White House math is misleading because the proposal turns off $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts known as the sequester. They argue that the budget only cuts $600 billion in deficits over 10 years.