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Hill Gets the Obama Touch

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President Barack Obama will arrive on Capitol Hill today for a meeting with Senate Democrats, but White House officials insist the session is not a hastily arranged Hail Mary pass for his increasingly beleaguered budget.

The Congressional Budget Office earlier this week forecast a 10-year deficit $2.3 trillion higher than that predicted by the White House, causing a stir among Congressional Democrats that has yet to subside.

Obama aides acknowledge that the budget is sure to be part of today’s discussion. But they suggest that Obama was keen for this meeting regardless of the reaction to the budget on Capitol Hill.

White House officials say the session is an effort by Obama to make good on a promise made privately to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that he would attempt to hold monthly meetings with their caucuses.

They note that Obama is traveling to Europe on Tuesday and that the House and Senate will be in recess the following two weeks. So if the session were not held within the next few days, it would have been pushed off for at least three weeks. Obama is planning to meet with House Democrats early next week, probably on Monday.

According to one White House official, part of Obama’s goal for today’s session with Democratic Senators is to emphasize his “ongoing commitment” to working closely with lawmakers in formulating policy, to keep his hand in the process. This would include the budget but also other areas. Coming to Capitol Hill, in this sense, is symbolic of his intent to be involved with them on issues.

“He just wants to demonstrate that he understands their role but make the argument about why elements of his priorities — like health care, education reform and energy” — need to move, the official said. Obama wants to “talk about his desire to put aside politics and get things done,” which includes working closely “with Democrats and Republicans.”

Obama also plans to discuss his efforts to stabilize the financial markets and his multipronged approach to the problem.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner on Tuesday spoke about the latest initiative, a proposal to allow the administration to take control of non-bank financial institutions before they get into big trouble and need to be bailed out.

Obama will not offer details of the potentially controversial plan, which he will craft in consultation with Congress, but he will be ready to take questions about it, officials say.

Obama expects to devote a substantial amount of time to answering Senators’ questions. And a lot of them will be about the budget, according to Congressional sources.

One senior Senate Democratic aide said the talk around the caucus is the Obama budget and plans by lawmakers to rein it in. “There are going to be things changed in the Senate budget” from what Obama proposed, the aide said.

Senators may look for a sense of Obama’s priorities in areas like education and health care to get some idea of what they might leave alone and what they might cut, he indicated.

One Senate Democratic leadership aide said Obama could expect a substantive discussion that includes “good give and take” on the budget, with lawmakers arguing for increased funds in some areas and cuts in others. In light of the latest CBO numbers, there may be pretty firm demands by some Senators for cuts, he added.

And Obama might want to note that Democrats are also trying to preserve his agenda even in the current fiscal climate, the aide suggested.

“I think what they’ll want to hear in part is him thanking the caucus for protecting his priorities in health care, education and energy while cutting the deficit in half,” the leadership aide said.

Another senior aide noted that Democrats are very supportive of Obama’s overall direction in areas like health, education and energy. “I expect he’ll get encouragement for not giving up and getting into a shell and not doing anything until the economy recovers,” he said.

Noting the anger directed recently at Geithner, this source said lawmakers also may express some concern that the message that righting the economy will take some time is not “being communicated as well as it could.”

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said he remains unconvinced that the budget as currently written is the right way to go but that he will likely withhold judgment on whether he will support the final package until the details are worked out.

Nelson said Tuesday that if the proposal includes greater curbs on spending it would be “heading in the right direction for me” and that he hopes Obama brings a message of greater fiscal restraint to today’s meeting.

The moderate Democrat hopes Obama talks about “less spending, stretching out priorities ... that would be refreshing.”

The president will also brief Senators today on the outlook for his trip to London next week where he will meet with leaders of the G-20 nations to discuss the global economy. Obama and his advisers are pushing Europe to adopt the type of stimulative measures that the United States has already put in place.

John Stanton contributed to this report.

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