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Obama Works The Hill For A 'Grand Bargain'


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

It's not hard to find signs that presidential advisors are skeptical, even as President Obama attempts a charm offensive in Congress. One advisor privately tells the National Journal the effort is "a joke" - that's a quote - which the White House is only doing to stop the media from demanding it. Other advisors told The New York Times that even when the president has reached out to Republicans, they're often afraid to be seen with him.

Nevertheless, the president is making the effort now, and House Republicans will meet him for lunch today, as they discuss huge disagreements over budgeting and more.

NPR's Ailsa Chang reports on a meeting yesterday with Senate Democrats.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: You can tell just how rare a presidential visit like this is on Capitol Hill by simply watching the reporters. There's a room on the second floor of the Capitol where the Senate Democrats have lunch every Tuesday, and there are always reporters hanging out there, hoping to get a nice, fat quote. But on this Tuesday, it was a total mob scene.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Mr. President, what do you hope to accomplish at these meetings?

CHANG: No one seemed to expect President Obama would actually say anything to the press, and he didn't. He just smiled, waved and breezed right on by.


CHANG: But somehow, that had been reason enough for everyone to plant themselves behind the red velvet ropes, just waiting for him. If you talk to the senators, they could relate to that same feeling, that waiting. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, says it's about time Obama tried a gesture like these lunch visits.

SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS REPUBLICAN, MAINE: The president's overtures are long overdue. But they're welcome, nevertheless.

CHANG: But are lunch dates enough? No one's willing to say, no, absolutely not. But no one seemed convinced, either, that this is the sure shot to the Grand Bargain. Take John McCain, for example, Republican senator from Arizona.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: I think it's important to start a conversation. Now, how far that conversation goes and how sincere it is on both sides remains to be seen. But you can't make progress unless you start a conversation.

CHANG: But a lot of Democrats say that conversation already started long ago, and the problem is the Republicans won't give. Here's the conflict: There's a deep divide between the two parties on how best to pare down the federal deficit. Republicans say let's cut entitlement spending, like Social Security and Medicare. Democrats say there can't be genuine deficit reduction without higher taxes, to which Republicans retort, OK, if you want tax reform, give us those spending cuts. And so it goes, around and around.

Now, Obama has said he'll relent to some cuts to entitlement benefits if it will get everyone to this Grand Bargain. He told the Senate Democrats that again at Tuesday's lunch.

SENATOR TOM HARKIN: Of course, some of us responded by saying, Yes, but...


HARKIN: ...what is in that Grand Bargain?

CHANG: Senator Tom Harkin from Iowa isn't interested in the kinds of entitlement cuts Obama is trying to get Democrats to swallow. The president said he's willing have higher-income Medicare recipients pay more than lower-income ones. And he said he's game for reducing cost-of-living increases for Social Security by measuring inflation differently.

But for some lawmakers, like Independent Bernie Sanders from Vermont, that's a no-go.

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: I'm going to fight as hard as I can to make the point that Social Security has not contributed one nickel to the deficit.

CHANG: And this discord in the Senate, even on the Democrats' side, is just one hurdle for the president. The big showdown will be with the House Republicans, who are lunching with him next.

In a way, this whole charm offensive is just a return to the approach Obama already tried with Republicans at the beginning of his first term, before they refused to go along with many of his proposals, and before relations got downright icy after the 2011 debt ceiling crisis. Now the strategy feels novel all over again.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
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