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Obama Calls GOP Senators, But Is He Listening?

Obama Calls GOP Senators, But Is He Listening?

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - March 5, 2013

With a fragile economy in the balance, President Obama and congressional Republicans have been talking around each other for months. But now that $85 billion in sweeping spending cuts are law, Obama is phoning GOP senators in a new effort to forge a deficit reduction deal, the White House says.

The president is trying to form a “common-sense caucus” of lawmakers -- a phrase he borrowed from Republican Sen. Susan Collins -- to come up with a $1.5 trillion package. Indeed, he is searching for a special breed: Republicans who haven’t abandoned hope for a big budget deal, are willing to accept new revenue along with reductions, and aren’t afraid to deal with a president whom many of their colleagues don’t trust at the negotiating table.

Obama has called at least four Republican senators in recent days -- Rob Portman of Ohio, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and Collins of Maine -- to discuss fiscal issues. Last week, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham met with him at the White House to discuss immigration and fiscal policy, and described their meeting as the best they’ve had with him yet.

“I really appreciate what he’s doing and I think it’s going to pay off,” Graham said when asked by RCP about the president’s calls. “I think there’s a chance to do the big bill; it’s what I’m looking for. I’m not looking for a short-term solution to our nation’s problem. We’re on the road to Greece, and I’d like to get off the highway . . . and I think sequestration will allow us the opportunity to do that.” Though those cuts officially went into effect on Friday, many of their effects won’t be felt for another month.

McCain also applauded Obama, his onetime campaign rival: “We need more dialogue and I’m glad he’s doing it.”

But, some lawmakers note, it’s one thing for the president to reach out and talk to the other side, and it’s quite another for him to listen to what they say.

Those who have spoken with the president would not discuss details of their discussions, but described them as positive. Coburn said he always has “good” conversations with the president, who called the two-term senator on Monday.

Obama said at a press conference Friday, as the sequestration deadline ticked closer, that “there is a caucus of common sense up on Capitol Hill. . . . It’s just a silent group” -- perhaps an evocation of Richard Nixon’s “silent majority,” whom the 37th president believed backed his policies but were not vocal politically. Obama tried to engage some of those lawmakers over the weekend, and he may reach out soon to others.

The president “believes that there are Republicans who . . . support the general premise of balance,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Monday, reiterating an oft-repeated administration talking point.

The White House plan to reform the tax code “in a way that eliminates these special breaks for the few and the wealthy and the well-connected” is one House Speaker John Boehner supported after the election and in the opening round of the fiscal cliff negotiations, Carney asserted. But a significant trust deficit between the GOP and the White House remains after the fiscal cliff drama failed to produce a grand bargain of new taxes and spending cuts, particularly to entitlement programs. Many Republicans in Congress believe the president did not negotiate in good faith; as a result, some say, the well has been poisoned.

“We clearly have a leader in the White House who talks about working together but who really doesn’t want to work together,” said Rep. Pat Tiberi of Ohio. A member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, he noted that Republicans will pursue entitlement and tax reform through his committee. (Boehner has reserved the designation HR 1 for such legislation.)

But Tiberi advised that Obama should stay out of that process. “There are Democrats in the House and there are Democrats in the Senate who, if they have the ability to work around their leader, I think there is hope,” he said.

Sen. John Hoeven, who said the president has not called him, labeled Obama’s outreach “an encouraging sign.” The North Dakota Republican noted, though, that Obama has come to the negotiating table before and no substantial progress came of it.

“Ultimately what we want is to get to a big deal a la Simpson-Bowles, where we truly have about 4 trillion between tax reform and reductions . . . and actually get into entitlement reform in a way that preserves the programs,” Hoeven told RCP. Looming deadlines on the continuing resolution at the end of this month and the debt ceiling in May will pressure the president and Democrats to come to the table on entitlements, Hoeven said. (House Republicans are poised to vote Thursday on a new continuing resolution that funds the government through Sept. 30 with sequester levels locked in -- though it re-programs some defense cuts.) 

Last week, Obama lamented opposition to him as personal, joking that lawmakers like to “paint horns on my head.”  In an interview with the left-leaning magazine The New Republic in January, he said he thinks there is goodwill in both parties to achieve a common goal -- he believes Boehner wanted to reach an agreement during the fiscal cliff dealings -- but that internal and external party influences are loath to compromise.

“The same dynamic happens on the Democratic side. I think the difference is just that the more left-leaning media outlets recognize that compromise is not a dirty word,” he said in the interview. “And I think at least leaders like myself -- and I include Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi in this -- are willing to buck the more absolutist-wing elements in our party to try to get stuff done.”

But many Republicans view the president as afraid to take on his own party when it comes to entitlement reform. Obama said last week he is open to such an undertaking.

Portman, who served as budget director under George W. Bush and whom the president called on Saturday, told a group of reporters last week that Obama needs to give his own party political shelter. “The mark of leadership over the next four years is whether the president provides cover for the Democrats to reform entitlements and do the things that need to be done,” he said. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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