Senators grill Obama on Keystone, NSA surveillance programs

President Obama defended his policies on the Keystone XL pipeline and the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs at a “lively” meeting with Senate Democrats Wednesday morning. 

Sen. Mary LandrieuMary Loretta LandrieuCassidy wins reelection in Louisiana Bottom line A decade of making a difference: Senate Caucus on Foster Youth MORE (D-La.), who is facing a tough reelection in 2014, pressed Obama on approval for the Keystone XL pipeline.

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“It was a lively debate,” said one senator who attended the meeting.

Obama sought to unify the caucus around his economic policies. His aides passed out a fact card highlighting the White House’s “A Better Bargain for the Middle Class.”

The fact card listed the president’s goals for job creation, education, home ownership, secure retirement and affordable healthcare.

It noted that businesses have created 7.2 million jobs in 40 months and that housing foreclosures have dropped to the lowest level since 2006.

But Democratic senators turned the meeting to their pet concerns. Landrieu grilled Obama about his administration’s reluctance to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which has bipartisan support in the Senate.

Obama remained noncommittal on the controversial pipeline and played down projections that it could have a dramatic effect on the economy.

“He was very careful about not telegraphing his decision,” said Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocrats draw red lines in spending fight What Republicans should demand in exchange for raising the debt ceiling Climate hawks pressure Biden to replace Fed chair MORE (D-R.I.). “But he showed a healthy skepticism about the exaggerated economic arguments supporting it.

“That was good. He’s obviously cutting through some of the clutter and nonsense that surrounds this,” he added.

Obama also told senators who have raised concerns about NSA programs that he’s willing to meet with them to discuss potential reforms.

“He said he’s willing to get together with members who are concerned about it and try to talk about a potential way forward,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphySenators slow Biden with holds at Pentagon, State Tell our troops: 'Your sacrifice wasn't in vain' Sunday shows preview: Bombing in Kabul delivers blow to evacuation effort; US orders strikes on ISIS-K MORE (D-Conn.).

The president also laid out his strategy for the fall debate over funding government and raising the debt limit.

“There were some bottom lines that he said,” said Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week CEOs urge Congress to raise debt limit or risk 'avoidable crisis' If .5 trillion 'infrastructure' bill fails, it's bye-bye for an increasingly unpopular Biden MORE (N.Y.), the third-ranking member of the Democratic leadership. “He’s not going to accept sequestration restoration for the military any greater than in domestic. He’s not going to negotiate on the debt ceiling.”

Obama also told senators that he would emphasize the need to fund transportation projects, scientific research, and education in the expected battle over government funding for fiscal year 2014.

He declined, however, to shed any light on his shortlist to replace Ben Bernanke as Federal Reserve chairman.

“The president mentioned that he’s talked to a number of candidates, but he didn’t mention any specific names,” Murphy said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDemocrats say Biden must get more involved in budget fight Biden looks to climate to sell economic agenda Justice Breyer issues warning on remaking Supreme Court: 'What goes around comes around' MORE (D-Nev.) said the Democratic caucus will support whomever Obama selects.

“That decision’s up to the president,” he said.