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President Barack Obama hosted his second meeting with Republican leaders in less than a week Wednesday, a move that comes just days before the House takes up its first major spending battle of the new Congress.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) emerged from a Wednesday lunch with Obama — their first meeting since becoming majority leaders last month — with praises for his willingness to find common ground on issues such as trade, job creation and spending cuts.
“We did have a fairly robust conversation about the need for all of us to work together to send the signal that we’re serious about cutting spending. We had agreement on that,” Cantor said.
“It was a beginning and a start,” McCarthy said. “We look forward to having the president on his word where we can move legislation where we can create new jobs in America.”
The meeting was light on substance and heavy on symbolism. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the leaders didn’t get into any specifics on spending or deficit reduction, both of which will be hotly debated issues next week when Obama sends Congress his budget.
“I don’t think that people looked at this as a negotiating session,” Gibbs said during a briefing.
“When we can sit around a table and talk about what we agree on and what common ground is there, that we can get things done on behalf of the American people,” he said. “I think this was an opportunity to listen to each other and to figure out where that common ground is.”
Obama’s huddle with House GOP leaders comes days after the president met privately with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The Friday meeting wasn’t listed on either of their schedules, and a McConnell aide would say only that the two had “a nice lunch.”
Regardless of whether Obama’s gestures to Republicans translate to agreements on the policy front, GOP leadership aides say the fact that lunches with the president are happening at all is a positive sign.
“This was the first time they’ve actually gotten together like this to talk issues. Both sides had positive feeling and there’s expectation the dialogue will continue,” a senior House Republican aide said.
Another aide said GOP leaders have been “pleased” thus far with the president’s overtures. “We will have to wait and see whether or not this goes beyond the lunch in terms of policy support,” this aide said.
House Democrats were overwhelmingly supportive of Obama’s outreach efforts, a sharp contrast to the criticisms that they lobbed at the administration in December, when the White House cut a deal with McConnell to facilitate passage of a sweeping package that included an extension of the Bush-era tax cuts.
During that debate, Democrats accused Obama of negotiating away core principles in the name of brokering a bipartisan agreement. This time, Democrats say the president’s outreach is helping to advance their agenda.
“I think it’s the right thing for him to do. If he’s willing to reach out to the Republicans, I hope they’re receptive as well because nothing can happen in this Congress unless we do it on a bipartisan basis,” Energy and Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman said.
The California Democrat said he still has some concerns that Republicans will “move further to the right and reject the opportunity that we have to work together.” But he added that he hopes “that won’t be the case and I applaud the president reaching out to them.”
Some Democrats pointed to disagreements among Republicans over fiscal issues as a sign that GOP leaders will also be looking for some Democratic support to pass legislation in the coming weeks, namely on the debt limit increase.
“Now that [Republican leaders] are here and they made all of these promises during the campaign, not just the tea party but across the board, they know they can’t deliver because they would have to shut the government down,” Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said. “They could still do that, but I don’t think they will.”
Rules ranking member Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) added, “I think the message is they feel they need our votes.”
Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told reporters Wednesday that he recently lunched with Cantor and McCarthy to discuss areas where they could work together this year. It makes sense for the president to do the same, the Maryland Democrat said.
“The American people elected some Republicans and some Democrats, and they expect us to work together and seek common ground to solve problems,” Hoyer said. “So I think it’s appropriate that the president sit down with the people in charge of the House to seek common ground.”
Pascrell expressed some skepticism over Obama cutting deals with Republicans that alienate Democrats. But the New Jersey Democrat said he will withhold judgment for now and wait to see the president’s budget blueprint.
“If he’s confident about the direction he’s going in, we’re team players,” Pascrell said. “If there’s any indication, and you’ll have it in this budget fight, that he’s selling us down the street in what we believe in and what he said in the State of the Union address, then you’ll see an uprising.”