By Alexander Bolton - 05/28/13 09:00 AM EDT
Senate Republicans who shared laughs with President Obama over dinner at the Jefferson Hotel in March are grumbling there has since been little follow-through from him on deficit talks.
"We've made no progress. None," said a GOP senator who had dinner with Obama earlier this year. "There's no process in place. Right now we just have 20 Republican senators meeting and talking to themselves."
The lawmaker said Obama needs to sit down regularly with about five or six GOP senators to begin making substantial progress toward a deficit-reduction deal.
A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Some Republicans think the president has become distracted from the deficit by intensified public controversies over the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, the Internal Revenue Service's targeting of Tea Party groups and the Justice Department’s investigation of The Associated Press.
"Those kinds of things can't help but turn the total focus of the deficit reduction away from the White House's perspective,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who had dinner with Obama on March 6 and golfed with him earlier this month.
Chambliss said he and his Republican colleagues have yet to set up a process for hammering out a deficit-reduction package with the White House.
"There is no process in place, that is correct, but there is conversation," he said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who helped organize the March 6 dinner at the Jefferson Hotel, said that the White House and GOP senators have not gotten to the point of exchanging paper outlining their competing proposals.
“I don’t think anybody’s gotten that far,” he said.
The president and a group of Republicans agreed to begin swapping paper when they met for dinner at the White House in April.
“We’ve been talking about trying to define the problem. Can we all agree what the next 30 years holds in terms of deficits, cost of entitlement programs? How much we’re going to spend, how much revenue we can generate?” Graham added. “It’s nice if you can have a 30-year view of things.”
Some Republicans have become impatient with what has begun to seem like circular talk.
“Everybody knows what the problem is. Everybody knows what the range of solutions to the problems are. Just stand up and lead on it,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who participated in the March 6 dinner.
Coburn agrees with colleagues who say there has been very little progress on deficit-reduction talks with Obama.
“I’d say that’s a fair assessment,” he said.
Obama told Republicans who had dinner with him in March that a deficit deal would need to happen by August.
That timeline has now been pushed until the fall and may even slide to the end of the year.
“Maybe in January,” Coburn said.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew took some of the pressure off earlier this month by alerting Congress that the nation’s debt ceiling would not have to be raised until after Labor Day.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the debt ceiling does not have to be lifted until October or November.
Democrats say one problem is that Obama has had difficulty finding Republicans with the authority to negotiate on behalf of their party.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) face reelection in 2014. Although a credible conservative challenger has yet to emerge against either one, they remain cautious.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) declared at the beginning of the year that he was finished with negotiating one-on-one with Obama.
White House officials say the president made a good-faith offer toward compromise when he proposed adopting the chained consumer price index to curb the growth of Social Security benefits in his budget plan.
Hopes for a broad bipartisan deal to cut the deficit are waning.
“I think the dinners were about two years too late,” said Jim Kessler, senior vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.
Kessler said multiple factors have eroded the political will to tackle the deficit this year.
The CBO has reduced its deficit projection for this year by about $200 billion to $642 billion.
Two prominent Harvard economists, Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff, have admitted making errors in an influential paper projecting the drag of high debt-to-GDP ratios on future economic growth.
The errors undermined a study Republicans frequently invoked when calling for deficit reduction.
Republicans have also ruled out raising additional tax revenues after agreeing to raise $620 billion in taxes as part of the year-end fiscal cliff deal.