The Obama administration continued its outreach to Republicans Thursday, part of its elusive quest to strike a grand bargain on the deficit, by dispatching top emissaries to the Hill for lunchtime meetings.
Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors and Director of Legislative Affairs Miguel Rodriguez made the rounds of the Capitol, chatting up a group of about a dozen GOP senators, visiting the end of Senate Democratic lunch and holding private meetings afterward. It was McDonough’s first visit to the Hill as chief of staff.
The lunch meeting with Republicans was meant to address concerns of senators who recently dined with President Barack Obama. It was also part of a renewed effort by the White House to win favor with lawmakers who felt ignored and frustrated in the president’s first term.
“We were simply doing a follow-up,” Nabors said of the session with the GOP.
Republicans “had brought up a few questions at the dinner, and we just wanted to be responsive to it, so I don’t think we had huge expectations going into it,” he continued.
When asked by CQ Roll Call what topics were addressed in the meeting, Nabors said, “It was on a couple of different issues,” specifically citing the budget and the deficit, as well as immigration. Asked whether guns came up, Nabors demurred.
The White House has said it will continue to push for enhanced background checks in the wake of a failed vote last week, but it has not yet outlined a strategy for doing so.
Republicans who were in the meeting seemed encouraged by the attention, perhaps the most recent sign that Obama’s so-called charm offensive could prove fruitful.
“It was a discussion, rather than an exposition of the different positions,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said.
“There weren’t any lines drawn,” McCain continued, adding that more conversations are likely.
Earlier Thursday, McCain said that he felt the mood changing in the Senate, with members more willing to tackle big issues including a grand bargain to reduce the deficit. That issue has appeared out of reach to lawmakers, given the parties’ differences over whether new taxes should be used to accomplish the goal.
Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., who also attended, said, that the exchange should not be construed as a negotiation, but rather an extension of the conversation that began at the dinner.
“This was not a negotiation session. It was a share ideas session,” Coats said. “It was a follow-up to the dinner.”
“The White House brought forth their ideas on how they would like to proceed on the whole package,” Coats said. “They laid out principles and, frankly, a lot of specifics.
“We asked a number of questions, we stated some of our ideas back to them and agreed that we would work together and put something on paper, in terms of how we think we should address the issue,” Coats said.
Coats said he was pleased that the White House followed up.
“So it’s a step in the right direction, but no one should classify this as ‘We are going to negotiate this process,’” Coats stressed. “We are still a ways apart on how to get there; on the other hand, we are not as far apart on what goals we want to reach.”
Coats said the idea is to see if a “grand plan” can be had that “puts us on the path to fiscal health over an extended period of time with a combination of pending cuts, revenue, and entitlement reform, along with comprehensive tax reform. They think we’ve gotten pretty far on cuts. We think they’ve gotten pretty far on taxes. The question is how you close” the gap.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, said he gets a little frustrated when he talks budget with the White House, but he said he was pleased to have the conversation.
“We can’t continue to live the way they are doing it,” Hatch said, who has concerns about the growing cost of entitlements.
Asked if the meeting discouraged him, Hatch said, “I wasn’t discouraged, that’s just typical of meeting with them. I don’t think they have much budgetary sense. That is not a knock at the people, just that the administration does not have budgetary sense.”