Obama’s Capitol Hill charm offensive may not pay off

David Lightman,Emma Kantrowitz,William Douglas

President Barack Obama’s three days of visits to Capitol Hill produced no serious thaw in the bitter partisan standoff that’s impeded progress on budget and fiscal matters for years.

Obama on Thursday wrapped up an extraordinary series of four visits in three days with lawmakers at the Capitol, hoping to gain enough trust to forge ahead with the kind of grand fiscal bargain that’s proven impossible to obtain.

While he may have laid some groundwork – the mood inside the meeting rooms throughout the week was described as cordial – Republicans and some liberal Democrats remained skeptical they could find consensus for a broader plan to curb projected deficits.

“It’s nice that the president reached out,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. “We were glad to have him. But there are big differences. And the president’s idea of compromise is just do it my way. And that’s just not going to work.”

In their closed-door meeting, House Republicans pointedly asked the president if he were more eager to win congressional seats for Democrats than get a bipartisan budget deal. In their meetings, liberal Democrats worried that the president might compromise too much on Medicare and other entitlement programs, though he assured them he wouldn’t.

“He recognized that we have some pretty big differences and we ought to keep expectations under control,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., “but he said he believes, and I think all of us believe, that this is the way we should be doing business together.”

In the days and weeks ahead, the visits’ impact could be hard to detect.

The first order of business is keeping the government funded and open past March 27 through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year. Final votes on a stopgap plan, which may ease the harshness of the March 1 automatic spending cuts by giving some agencies flexibility to move money around, are expected late next week.

The lack of rancor so far is not Obama’s doing. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said senators have been peppered with pleas from constituents urging cooperation. “Both sides are hearing that,” he said.

Lurking next is a tougher task. Both the House and Senate next week plan to consider budget proposals for the next 10 years beyond Sept. 30. Republicans control the House of Representatives and are offering a blueprint that raises no taxes, balances the budget, and slows the growth in domestic spending beyond what Democrats will accept.

Democrats will counter in the Senate with a budget that raises $975 billion in taxes and cuts an equal amount from projected spending over 10 years. Republicans vow that’ll go nowhere.

Obama all week has spoken about a big deal that would set the nation on a different fiscal course, and found Republicans largely divided into two camps.

One, largely in the House, seemed unconvinced the president is prepared to compromise.

“He’s not aloof, he’s not in your face, he’s articulate, affable, he wasn’t rude, he wasn’t offensive,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. But, he added, the message from Obama was, “I’m a good guy. If you’d act on what I said three years ago, we’d be fine.”

Obama was asked about balancing the budget in 10 years, like the House Republican plan, and the president said what’s more important is getting deficits down to reasonable levels.

“I don’t think that’s responsible,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.

Another group of Republicans, generally senators as well as House members who have voted for recent fiscal compromises, was more positive.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked Obama on Thursday if the No. 1 priority of elected officials should be restoring economic growth. Obama said yes, and Cruz then asked if there was hope for bipartisan cooperation on taxes and regulations.

The freshman senator wanted to know if Obama would back “fundamental tax reform that doesn’t raise revenues but reduces the burdens of our tax code on small business and on individuals.” Cruz said Obama sensed agreement “on broadening the base, on lowering the rate so we can be internationally competitive and on remaining revenue-neutral.”

During the House meeting, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., was encouraged that Obama discussed changing how cost-of-living adjustments are calculated for certain entitlement programs as well as other Medicare changes.

“It was a good first step,” King said.

Democratic liberals were not convinced progress was imminent.

On cost-of-living changes, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said Obama told House Democrats that “it may be a moot discussion if (Republicans) are not willing to do substantial revenues.” They’re not.

Obama would not assure the liberals he wouldn’t tackle Medicare and other entitlements. But, said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, “The president’s very clear about this, and you might want to integrate it into your questions – very clear: no revenue, no change in the entitlements.”

The overarching message: Any progress toward a grand bargain will take time and more struggles.

“I’m glad President Obama reached out yesterday . . . and I think we had an honest discussion,” Boehner said. “But this is going to take more than dinner dates and phone calls.”

By David Lightman, Emma Kantrowitz and William Douglas
McClatchy Newspapers