Obama changing course, talking to Congress

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 7, 2013 

The Capitol dome

TISH WELLS — McClatchy

— President Barack Obama is doing something he rarely does: Talking to Congress.

Obama has launched an unprecedented outreach with Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill as he looks for a fiscal compromise with a divided Congress that could include an elusive deal to sharply reduce the federal deficit.

He’s made calls to senators of both parties, some of them more than once. He treated a dozen Republican senators to dinner at a tony Washington hotel Wednesday and lunched with House budget leaders Thursday at the White House. Next week, he’ll meet separately with Republican and Democratic caucuses in the Senate and House of Representatives in an infrequent visit to the Capitol. It will be the first time he’s met with Senate Republicans on their turf in nearly three years.

The talks – mostly with rank-and-file members who the White House calls the “caucus of common sense” – have yet to produce any results. But lawmakers welcomed the conversations they say should have happened years ago.

“We’ve gone 180,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday. “After being in office now for four years, he’s actually going to sit down and talk to members. . . . It’s a somewhat hopeful sign that the president, now in his second term, is beginning to understand that you’ve got to have – even the leaders have to have support of the members.”

Obama is speaking to lawmakers about his policy goals – including rewriting immigration laws and curbing gun violence – but the talks have focused primarily on the impasse over trimming the deficit and cutting spending as the president senses a window to negotiate a deal, according to several people familiar with the conversations.

Democrats have been pushing a solution that includes modest cuts in spending, including changes to Social Security, Medicare and health care, and the elimination of tax loopholes that benefit certain industries or the wealthy. Many Republicans are opposed to raising taxes, but some moderates say they would consider additional revenues.

Last week, $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts went into effect after Democrats and Republicans failed to agree if – or how – the reductions should be averted. The House passed a bill Wednesday that would provide flexibility to the defense cuts but would leave the reductions in place. Next up: the budget for federal agencies for the rest of the fiscal year after the current budget expires on March 27.

“Simply continuing on our current path, careening from crisis to crisis, is untenable,” said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., who attended Wednesday’s dinner.

Obama has never been one to lobby – or even socialize – much with lawmakers. Instead, he had tried to pressure Congress by rallying the public at campaign-style events across the nation.

John Feehery, a Republican political consultant and former congressional aide, said Obama changed his strategy because his campaigning on the spending cuts garnered negative publicity and failed to persuade Congress to side with him.

“I think the big problem is he’s tried this public campaign and it didn’t move the needle,” he said. “You’ve got to engage the other side.”

Critics and some supporters attribute Obama’s failure to achieve some of his goals in his first term to his relationships first with a Congress controlled by his own party and later a divided one.

Not all. Robert Borosage, president of liberal Campaign for America’s Future, thinks Obama has been unfairly criticized for failing to speak to lawmakers in the past, though he did think the recent outreach could be helpful. “It’s good to use personal persuasion,” he said.

Obama has at times tried to engage lawmakers, most notably when he played golf once with Boehner in 2011. But earlier efforts were short-lived.

White House spokesman Jay Carney insisted Thursday that Obama has always engaged with lawmakers. He acknowledged, though, that the president realized the implementation of the spending cuts contributed to “changed circumstances.”

“We are not unrealistic in our expectations,” Carney said. “We are not naive about the fact that there are real disagreements between the two parties on these issues. . . . We are simply saying that it is the right thing to do, and the American people expect their leaders to do it, to engage and have a conversation about these issues. . . . But there are also likely to be areas of agreement.”

Last month, Obama invited Senate Democrats working on an immigration overhaul to the White House for a meeting that his staff did not publicize or add to his daily schedule. Republicans were not invited to attend.

After days of criticism, he phoned Republican senators working on the same issue – including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and his 2008 presidential rival, John McCain of Arizona.

Then came a flurry of calls and meetings: He invited the four leaders – Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to the White House to talk about the cuts. He called a slew of senators from both parties, before the Senate voted last week on potential responses to the cuts, and since then to speak about broader fiscal issues.

“I hope it will serve as the beginning of a new, long-overdue paradigm where people in elected office actually begin talking to each other about meaningful issues,” said Graham, who helped organize the dinner Wednesday.

David Lightman of the Washington Bureau contributed.

Email: akumar@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @anitakumar01

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