President Obama and congressional Republicans on Wednesday began a series of meetings aimed at chipping away years of accumulated mistrust and laying the groundwork for a major deficit-reduction deal.
Yet each side remains skeptical about the other’s motives, fearing this could be another round of posturing to set up arguments for the next election.
Senate and House Republicans are encouraged that Obama has reached out to them to restart deficit talks, but some wonder if it’s merely a public relations ploy by the president to shore up sliding poll numbers.
The effort began Wednesday night, when the president hosted 12 GOP senators for dinner at The Jefferson, a luxury hotel a few blocks from the White House.
GOP senators say Obama called over the weekend to feel them out as potential partners on a deal to reform entitlement programs and the tax code, which could turn off $85 billion in automatic spending cuts this year.
Lawmakers described the outreach as a dramatic shift in style and tactics by the president, who kept them at arm’s length in his first term.
“He’s never spent any time reaching out. It seems like it’s starting to change. The question is, is it starting to change because there are bad poll numbers or is it because he’s really decided he’s going to lead and solve some of the problems of the country?” said Sen. Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnBiden and AOC's reckless spending plans are a threat to the planet NSF funding choice: Move forward or fall behind DHS establishes domestic terror unit within its intelligence office MORE (Okla.), who was invited with a small group of GOP senators to have dinner with Obama on Wednesday.
“I’m open-minded. I hope this is not check-the-box so he can then tell [reporters], ‘Hey, look, I met with the Republicans,’ ” said Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio), a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee and an ally of Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFeehery: The next Republican wave is coming Rift widens between business groups and House GOP Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power MORE (R-Ohio). “So we’ll see.”
Several Republicans cited a new Reuters/Ipsos online poll showing Obama’s approval rating has slipped to 43 percent, saying that slide may have spurred the president’s outreach.
White House officials, for their part, are not certain whether lawmakers such as Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainDole to lie in state in Capitol Rotunda Bob Dole: A great leader of the 'Greatest Generation' The bully who pulls the levers of Trump's mind never learns MORE (R-Ariz.), Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMcConnell faces GOP pushback on debt deal Bottom line GOP senators introduce bill targeting Palestinian 'martyr payments' MORE (R-S.C.) and Coburn are really interested in a deal.
“We’ll see ... we take them at their word that they want to work with us,” one official said.
The Wednesday evening dinner between Obama and Republican senators at The Jefferson was arranged after the president asked Graham to pull together a small group of colleagues for a meeting.
White House chief of staff Denis McDonoughDenis Richard McDonoughOvernight Defense & National Security — Austin mandates vaccine for Guardsmen The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden favors vaccines, masks over lockdowns as omicron nears Biden signs four bills aimed at helping veterans MORE also called Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSchumer tees up key Thursday vote on debt deal House approves bill to ease passage of debt limit hike Senate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale MORE (Ky.) to set up a visit by the president to a Senate GOP lunch next week. Obama will attend a lunch with Senate Democrats at the Capitol Tuesday and then meet with Republicans Thursday.
White House staff is working to set up meetings with the House Republican Conference and the Democratic Caucus, as well.
“It’s clear to get anything done there’s going to need to be a coalition with moderates,” the senior official said.
“Clearly talking to BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerFeehery: The next Republican wave is coming Rift widens between business groups and House GOP Juan Williams: Pelosi shows her power MORE has gotten us nowhere all the time. Now we’re looking to reach out to people who want to work with us. He’s trying to build on the idea of a common-sense caucus.”
Even the way news of Wednesday’s dinner surfaced underscored the fears and suspicions permeating the talks.
Graham told colleagues he envisioned the dinner as a small, private meeting at the White House. He was surprised when the White House decided to host it at a hotel and leaked the guest list and the location to the press, raising its profile.
GOP senators say Obama showed a keen interest in reviving the prospect of a bipartisan deficit-reduction deal by working directly with rank-and-file lawmakers.
“I doubt he wants to spend the next three and a half years on budget and financial issues,” said Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her MORE (R-Tenn.). “Hopefully it’s a sign there’s an opportunity to put this issue behind us. I know all of us would like to do that.”
Boehner and McConnell have signaled they are through with summit-level talks with the president on the deficit. They have called for Congress to pass budget-cutting measures through regular order instead.
A senior Senate GOP aide characterized Wednesday’s dinner and next week’s lunch meeting more as “listening” than negotiating sessions.
A Democratic aide said the outlines of a deficit deal are clear. The aide noted Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, identified about $700 billion in tax revenues that could be collected by limiting tax breaks, and the president has signaled support for limiting the growth of Social Security by switching to the chained-CPI formula and finding $400 billion in savings from healthcare programs.
The senior administration official said Obama wants there to be more outreach to Capitol Hill than had occurred in the early days of his presidency.
In 2009, Obama waged a charm offensive to persuade former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) to support the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
But efforts to court GOP lawmakers subsided as his first term wore on, and Republican leaders repeatedly unified their conferences to oppose his agenda.
Obama reaped political success in 2011 and 2012 by publicly campaigning against Republicans as obstructionists. While that tack helped boost his poll numbers before the election, it failed to yield a deal to turn off the sequester, which took effect last week.
Some Republicans think Obama has changed his course because face-to-face meetings give him the best chance to address the deficit and clear the decks for immigration reform and other priorities.
“I think there’s an opportunity for a really large deal sometime in the late spring. Maybe he’s trying to set the atmosphere and start anew. That’s a good thing,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).
Cole said Obama’s recent campaign to pressure Republicans to agree to raise taxes to stop the sequester backfired.
“I think they tried to break us by running a political campaign and I think it was legislatively counterproductive. It actually pushed Republicans together. It got him mad,” Cole said.
He noted that Obama crisscrossed the country to inveigh against automatic spending cuts but did not meet with McConnell and Boehner until Friday, the day the sequester was due to start.
Republicans say they will judge Obama’s sincerity in pursuit of major compromise by what he offers in reforms to entitlement programs and mandatory spending cuts.
“If you look at the last four years it’s always been for optics,” Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrTrump moves to boost Ted Budd in North Carolina Senate race Texas Democrat Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson announces retirement at end of term On The Money — IRS chief calls for reinforcements MORE (R-N.C.) said of Obama’s past outreach efforts.
Burr, who was invited to have dinner with Obama Wednesday, said the president can show himself a “willing partner” by “acknowledging we have to fix the things that are broken, and that’s entitlement reform and tax reform.”
Republican Sens. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteSununu setback leaves GOP scrambling in New Hampshire The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - GOP dealt 2022 blow, stares down Trump-era troubles Sununu exit underscores uncertain GOP path to gain Senate majority MORE (N.H.), Saxby ChamblissClarence (Saxby) Saxby ChamblissFormer Georgia Sen. Max Cleland dies at 79 Effective and profitable climate solutions are within the nation's farms and forests Live coverage: Georgia Senate runoffs MORE (Ga.), Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsAn independent commission should review our National Defense Strategy Overnight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens Former national security officials warn antitrust bills could help China in tech race MORE (Ind.), John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenEquilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Native solar startups see business as activism Religious institutions say infrastructure funds will help model sustainability House passes legislation to strengthen federal cybersecurity workforce MORE (N.D.), Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonFauci calls Ron Johnson's AIDS comment 'preposterous': 'I don't have any clue of what he's talking about' Wisconsin senators ask outsiders not to exploit parade attack 'for their own political purposes' It's time to bury ZombieCare once and for all MORE (Wis.), Mike JohannsMichael (Mike) Owen JohannsMeet the Democratic sleeper candidate gunning for Senate in Nebraska Farmers, tax incentives can ease the pain of a smaller farm bill Lobbying World MORE (Neb.), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Corker and McCain were also invited to the dinner.
— Russell Berman and Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.