WASHINGTON — Polite yet firm, Senate Republicans told President Obama on Thursday to tone down his political attacks and prod Democratic allies to support controversial changes in Medicare if he wants a compromise reducing deficits and providing stability to federal benefit programs.
Participants at a 90-minute closed-door meeting said Obama acknowledged the point without yielding ground — and noted that Republicans criticize him freely. “To quote an old Chicago politician, ‘Politics ain’t beanbag,’ ” Obama said.
The discussion came as Obama wrapped up a highly publicized round of meetings with rank-and-file lawmakers in both parties and both houses of Congress in hopes of building support for a second-term agenda of deficit reduction, immigration overhaul, and gun control.
Obama met separately with Senate Republicans and House Democrats as legislation to lock in $85 billion in spending cuts and avert a government shutdown on March 27 made plodding progress. Separately the two parties advanced longer-term budgets in both houses.
No breakthrough had been anticipated and none was reported in the closed-door sessions, although Obama told reporters before returning to the White House, “We’re making progress.”
In the Senate, several Republicans told Obama his rhetoric is not conducive to compromise. Senator John Thune of South Dakota referred to an interview in which Obama said some Republicans want to eviscerate Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. “Nobody here believes those programs ought to be gutted,” Thune told Obama, the senator recalled.
“It’s better if the president is here fully engaged with us than traveling around the country saying Congress isn’t doing its job,” Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming later told reporters, summarizing comments he and others had made. “The president needs to be here working side by side with Congress.”
Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said the message to Obama had been: “Step one is to work with us, not just heckle and taunt us on the campaign trail, and step two is to lead.” The Tennessee lawmaker said Obama must also “go against the grain in his own party,” much as Lyndon Johnson did in winning civil rights legislation from Congress in the 1960s or Richard Nixon did in forging an opening with China in the 1970s.
Obama has told Republicans in recent days he supports curtailing the growth of cost-of-living benefits for Social Security and other benefit programs as part of a compromise, as well as raising costs for wealthier Medicare beneficiaries.
He has also told them they must agree to raise revenue — although not tax rates — as part of any deal.
So far, at least, Republicans have noted that proposals to overhaul Medicare include higher premiums or copays on wealthier seniors. Some also have said they could accept higher revenues as part of tax reform that stimulates economic growth.
Neither approach is likely to guarantee enough revenue to satisfy Obama or congressional Democrats. The president said as much later in the day. According to one lawmaker, he told House Democrats in a separate meeting they need not worry about slowing the rise in cost of living benefits because Republicans show no willingness to raise revenues.
If nothing else, the reviews of Obama’s meeting with Senate Republicans were positive.
“We’ll see where we go from here, but it was a great meeting,” said GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who normally is one of the president’s sharpest critics in Congress.
‘We’ll see where we go from here, but it was a great meeting.’Mitch McConnell, Senate minority leader from Kentucky
Senators emerging from meetings with Obama said the discussions ranged over the fate of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, regulatory concerns, fracking, the deficit, and more.
The president declined to be pinned down on the fate of the Keystone Pipeline, which supporters hope to build to ship Canadian oil to the United States.
Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota said Obama pledged only to make a decision before the end of the year on the project, which is opposed by environmentalists but supported by some labor unions.
While Obama completed his closed-door round of meetings, the Senate slowly worked its way through a bill that locks in $85 billion in spending cuts through the end of the budget year while guaranteeing there won’t be a government shutdown.