President Barack Obama, in his first meeting in three years with U.S. House Republicans, said he doesn’t support balancing the budget over 10 years though he wants to find common ground on revamping the tax code.
The president also signaled a willingness to look at changes to entitlement programs, including Social Security, according to lawmakers who described Wednesday’s session, which lasted a little more than an hour.
Republican lawmakers said the meeting emphasized how far apart the parties are on tax increases and spending, even as Republicans and Democrats say deficit reduction is a priority.
Before addressing the nation’s long-term debt, Obama is “going to hold hostage the fact that he wants to raise taxes on the American people again. That’s not going to get us very far,” House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters after the meeting. He described the session as “productive,” without offering details.
The president told House Republicans “he doesn’t want to balance the budget in 10 years and he wants a tax increase and he wants new spending,” California Representative Darrell Issa told reporters. “Other than that, we’re close.”
Representative Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican, told reporters as he left the meeting that Obama has to overcome a “trust factor” with Republicans. “It was disappointing to hear he doesn’t believe we need to balance the budget in a 10- year time frame,” he said.
New York Republican Michael Grimm, who described the conversation with the president as “constructive,” told reporters “there was definitely an undertone of Republicans being skeptical that the president looks at everything through a political optic” and tries to “gain an advantage for 2014.”
“There was pushback there,” Grimm said. “The president made it very clear that’s not his agenda at all.”
Grimm said he left the meeting with the impression that Obama and House Republicans could find common ground on “overall tax reform” and a rewrite of immigration law.
Virginia Republican Randy Forbes said the meeting with Obama was “a great first step to begin to have these kinds of dialogues. It wasn’t the purpose to have a love-fest, the purpose was to say how do we put facts on the table and how do we deal with facts.”
Obama told Republicans that he would support a change in the way cost-of-living increases are calculated for Social Security and other entitlements as well as means-testing Medicare benefits, South Dakota Representative Kristi Noem said in an interview.
Still, Obama said he’d be willing to consider entitlement program changes only with revenue increases as part of a broader budget deal, according to Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican.
Obama is meeting with Republicans on Capitol Hill over two days as the chief budget writers in the House and Senate have offered competing spending blueprints for 2014. The president’s challenge is whether to strike a compromise or side with Democrats as he pushes for a deficit-reduction plan.
The Senate budget blueprint laid out Wednesday by Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, would generate almost $1 trillion in new revenue while protecting Medicare and expanding Medicaid health coverage for more low-income Americans. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, Tuesday proposed a plan for balancing the government’s books in 10 years by cutting $4.6 trillion.
“Right now, what I’m trying to do is create an atmosphere where Democrats and Republicans can go ahead, get together, and try to get something done,” Obama said in an interview broadcast Wednesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America. “My goal is not to chase a balanced budget just for the sake of balance. My goal is how do we grow the economy, put people back to work. And if we do that, we’re going to be bringing in more revenue.”
While Obama met with House Republicans, the Senate Budget Committee began considering Murray’s proposal, which calls for about $975 billion each in tax increases, mostly for top earners and corporations, and in spending cuts. The spending cuts include a projected $240 billion reduction in interest payments on debt.
Murray’s plan includes $100 billion in economic stimulus and calls for a fast-track process to increase taxes for top earners and large corporations that would bypass the 60-vote supermajority needed to force a vote on the Senate floor. The Budget Committee is scheduled to approve the plan Thursday, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said today he plans to take it to the floor next week.
The Senate also Wednesday began considering amendments to a House-passed proposal to fund the government through Sept. 30. Senators voted 45-52 to reject a proposal by Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, to bar funding for implementation of Obama’s 2010 health-care law.
Senate Democratic leaders are looking to give the Agriculture, Homeland Security, Commerce and Justice departments as well as science programs flexibility to execute across-the-board spending cuts that took effect March 1. The House-passed bill gives that leeway to the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments.
Reid has said he aims to complete action on the measure this week and it could go to the House for final action next week.
On the broader budget talks, one difference between the Republican and Democratic approaches centers on how each would allocate added revenue coming from curbs on tax exemptions.
Ryan’s plan would use new revenue to lower rates for individuals and corporations as part of a rewrite of the U.S. tax code. Murray’s plan would apply savings from ending tax breaks toward $1.85 trillion in deficit reduction over a decade.
Ryan’s budget also contains elements that Democrats are committed to opposing: repeal of the 2010 health-care law, which is set to take full effect next year, and partial privatization of Medicare by allowing Americans now younger than 55 to buy private insurance with a government subsidy.
Obama told Senate Democrats Tuesday that a bigger deal on spending and entitlements is the only way to end the automatic spending cuts that started March 1, said Iowa Senator Tom Harkin. Those cuts, known as sequestration, will take $85 billion from the current fiscal year. In all, $1.2 trillion would be cut over nine years.
The president also was noncommittal when asked whether he would resist raising the eligibility ages for Medicare or Social Security, according to Harkin.
Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, said Obama “was very optimistic about working with Democrats and Republicans to give the country a path forward for growth.” Still, the House and Senate plans present “a very stark choice,” she said.
Obama will have to overcome an image of aloofness and resentment among some lawmakers who complain that he has waged a campaign-style effort to pressure them into accepting more tax revenue.
“Most Republicans have never talked with President Obama,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who was an aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
The president visited a House Republican conference in the Capitol in January 2009, just after he took office. A year later, he accepted House Republicans’ invitation to visit their annual issues retreat in Baltimore.
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