WASHINGTON -- 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.