Polite yet firm, Senate Republicans told President Barack Obama on Thursday to tone down his political attacks and prod Democratic allies to support controversial changes in Medicare if he wants a compromise reducing deficits and providing stability to federal benefit programs.
Participants at a 90-minute closed-door meeting said Obama acknowledged the point without yielding ground — and noted that Republicans criticize him freely. "To quote an old Chicago politician, 'Politics ain't beanbag,'" the president said.
The discussion came as Obama wrapped up a highly publicized round of meetings with rank-and-file lawmakers in both parties and both houses of Congress in hopes of building support for a second-term agenda of deficit reduction, immigration overhaul and gun control.
Obama met separately with Senate Republicans and House Democrats as legislation to lock in $85 billion in spending cuts and avert a government shutdown on March 27 made plodding progress. Separately the two parties advanced rival longer-term budgets in both houses.
No breakthroughs had been anticipated and none was reported in the closed-door sessions, although Obama told reporters before returning to the White House, "We're making progress."
In the Senate, several Republicans told the president his rhetoric was not conducive to compromise.
Sen. John Thune of South Dakota referred to a recent interview in which Obama said some Republicans want to eviscerate Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. "Nobody here believes those programs ought to be gutted," Thune told Obama, the senator later recalled.
"It's better if the president is here fully engaged with us than traveling around the country saying Congress isn't doing its job," Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming later told reporters, summarizing comments he and others had made. "The president needs to be here working side by side with Congress."
Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said the message to Obama had been: "Step one is to work with us, not just heckle and taunt us on the campaign trail, and step two is to lead." The Tennessee lawmaker said Obama must also "go against the grain in his own party," much as Lyndon Johnson did in winning civil rights legislation from Congress in the 1960s or Richard Nixon did in forging an opening with China in the 1970s.
Obama has repeatedly told Republicans in recent days he supports curtailing the growth of cost-of-living benefits for Social Security and other benefit programs as part of a compromise, as well as raising costs for wealthier Medicare beneficiaries.
He has also told them they must agree to raise revenue — although not tax rates — as part of any deal.
So far, at least, Republicans have noted that proposals to overhaul Medicare include higher premiums or copays on wealthier seniors. Some also have said they could accept higher revenues as part of tax reform that stimulates economic growth.
Neither approach is likely to guarantee enough revenue to satisfy Obama or congressional Democrats. The president said as much later in the day. According to one lawmaker, he told House Democrats in a separate meeting they need not worry about slowing the rise in cost of living benefits because Republicans so far show no willingness to raise revenues.
If nothing else, the reviews of Obama's meeting with Senate Republicans were uniformly positive.
"We'll see where we go from here, but it was a great meeting," said GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who normally is one of the president's sharpest critics in Congress.
Senators emerging from meetings with Obama said the discussions had ranged over the fate of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, regulatory concerns, fracking, deficit reduction and more.
The president declined to be pinned down on the fate of the Keystone Pipeline, which supporters hope to build to ship Canadian oil to the United States. Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota said Obama pledged only to make a decision before the end of the year on the project, which is opposed by environmentalists but supported by some labor unions.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., mentioned the Navajo Generating Station, a power plant in Page, Ariz., where the Environmental Protection Agency is requiring the facility's owner to spend $1.1 billion to upgrade emissions controls. Flake recently wrote that a separate federal agency recently said that even with the change, it couldn't guarantee there would be "any perceptible improvement in visibility at the Grand Canyon and other national parks and wilderness areas."
While Obama completed his closed-door round of meetings, the Senate slowly worked its way through a bill that locks in $85 billion in spending cuts through the end of the budget year while guaranteeing there won't be a government shutdown.
In a show of bipartisanship, leading senators in both parties agreed to provide flexibility for the departments of Commerce, State, Justice and Homeland Security in apportioning the spending cuts, just as the House did with the Pentagon in its version of the bill.
But there were limits to cooperation — most evidently as Republicans attacked a budget by Senate Democrats that relies on $1 trillion in higher taxes over a decade, makes relatively modest changes to Medicare and envisions deficits indefinitely into the future.
Because Democrats want to restore $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over the same period — cuts imposed by Washington's failure to strike a broader budget pact — the blueprint authored by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington increases spending slightly when compared with current policies.
McConnell labeled the plan a "left-wing manifesto masquerading as a budget."
Democrats on Thursday evening pushed Murray's budget through the Budget Committee on a 12-10 party-line vote, setting up a clash on the Senate floor next week.
A rival plan is expected to come to the Republican-controlled House next week after its approval in committee Wednesday evening. Democrats were as harsh in criticizing it as Republicans were in condemning theirs. The GOP plan cuts $4.6 trillion and eliminates deficits over a decade without any tax increase.