Banter, no breakthrough, as Obama lunches with Senate Republicans

Rachel Rose Hartman and Olivier Knox
The Ticket

President Barack Obama’s third and final day of in-person courtship of Congress found him lunching on lobster Thursday with Senate Republicans, and chewing over prospects for reforming the nation’s tax code, entitlements and regulatory structure.

Despite occasional bursts of audible applause from the closed-door session, neither side reported any breakthroughs after the 90-minute discussion. Republicans emerging from the meeting emphasized that Obama held the key to any concrete progress.

“We’re just not president,” Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee told reporters. “We may all want to be, but we’re not.”

Obama, who described the session as a "great conversation" as he swiftly exited the meeting room, appeared to please some Senate Republicans with talk of corporate tax and entitlement reforms.

"I think on the corporate side, it sounded like we have an agreement," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said cheerfully—well, as cheerfully as the typically stoic McConnell could muster—following the conversation with the president. "He even thought it ought to be revenue neutral."

But, as McConnell pointed out, corporate tax reform does not a “grand bargain” make. "I don't see how you could do corporate tax reform only,” he said.

On entitlement reforms, Republicans would not speak for the president, preferring instead to agree with reporters when asked if the president "appeared willing to stand up to his party" on the issue. The White House has repeatedly endorsed the idea of curbing spending on big mandatory programs like Medicare and Medicaid—bucking many congressional Democrats, especially the party's liberals.

Many pleasantries were also offered by Republicans about the president's willingness to sit down with them for a discussion. But it was clear from the crowd filing out of the room that no major breakthrough was reached. In fact, many expressed the view that the president had presented no new items.

“Nothing surprised me," said Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn.

"He hit the nail right on the head," Utah Sen. Mike Lee agreed.

"There were a lot of things I learned, but nothing I didn't know," said Utah's other senator, Orrin Hatch.

Louisiana Sen. David Vitter basically accused the president of putting on a show for the conference, writing on Twitter:

Prez striking nice tone at lunch, talks a great game. Problem is actions/reality don't match up.

— David Vitter (@DavidVitter) March 14, 2013

Obama escaped questioning on one high-profile controversy: his expanded use of drone strikes as part of his program of targeted assassination of suspected extremists overseas, including Americans. Perhaps that was because his lead Republican critic on the issue, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, skipped lunch with the president to take the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

"I do want to help the president. I have a few for suggestions for him, I'm sorry I couldn't have lunch with him today. Maybe he'll be able to see this later on C-SPAN," Paul told the crowd.

One of Paul's potential rivals for the party's 2016 presidential nomination, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, was also at CPAC.

On the big issue of whether and when to build the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would connect Alberta, Canada, to Gulf Coast refineries, Obama suggested he would make a decision soon.

"He's going to make a decision sometime this year—that doesn't mean toward the end of the year," Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts told reporters.

After speaking with several Republicans, it was clear there was an element of stagecraft in their complaints.

Nearly to a person, they emerged gauzily recalling the bygone eras of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and, yes, even Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton as fruitful eras of presidential leadership and bipartisan cooperation, suggesting that all that stood between Obama and history-making compromise was some undefined "leadership."

But their own rock-ribbed opposition to his agenda likely doesn’t help.

McConnell went so far as to suggest that a divided Congress is the best time to get things done: "Divided government is actually the perfect time to do hard things. In fact you could argue it may be the only time you can do hard things.”

And that may be at the crux of an eventual grand bargain: A divided Congress insulates the president from both parties, enabling him to make tough decisions, and does the same for congressional representatives in relation to their constituents.

Obama later Thursday rounded out his day by holding a meeting with House Democrats—his final meeting of the rare Capitol Hill talks now dubbed by convention as the president's "charm offensive."

And whether any movement was gained, at least some Republicans willingly expressed that the emphasis Thursday perhaps was on the "charm."

"I have to say, he's good at what he does," Hatch said. "He's very smart and has a very winning personality."

Chris Moody contributed to this story.