(CLARIFICATION added at 2:58 p.m. Wednesday.)
President Barack Obama took questions about the economy, his budget, drone policy, immigration and other issues on Tuesday as he met behind closed doors for more than an hour with Senate Democrats. It's a divided group that he aims to unite behind key second-term goals like immigration reform, battling gun violence and reining in deficits and the nation's debt.
Obama heard from Democrats up for re-election in 2014 who worry that his yet-to-be-released budget could leave them open to GOP campaign attacks over government spending, as well as from liberals who strongly urged him not to make "whacking away" at entitlement benefits a part of any "grand bargain" with the GOP.
"We're trying to stay united," Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri told reporters. Are Democrats united now? "We're getting pretty united." What issues still divide Democrats? "I’m not going to talk about that, because I want us to get united first," she said. "And then we’ll be united."
Obama's unusual visit launched a weeklong campaign of outreach to Congress that includes a Wednesday meeting with House Republicans, and then separate Thursday talks with Senate Republicans and House Democrats.
The outreach, which inside-the-Beltway tradition seemingly requires reporters to dub a “charm offensive,” comes after the president treated Republican senators to dinner at a swank D.C. hotel last week. He also hosted the top House Republican and Democratic budget-writers at the White House. Through it all, he’s also been working the phones, calling lawmakers from both parties and both chambers.
So why was this meeting necessary, reporters asked Democratic Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana. "It's always good to talk," he said. But Obama hasn't made a lot of these trips, a reporter pointed out. "Better late than never," Baucus replied. What was the president's message? "Work together. Teamwork. History’s on our side. All that kind of thing," he said.
Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, who is up for re-election in 2014, played down the potential political fallout from the Senate Democratic budget, which reportedly includes nearly a trillion dollars in new tax revenues, chiefly by closing loopholes and ending some deductions for wealthy Americans, but does not balance in 10 years.
One reporter asked Begich: "You’re up in 2014. Are you comfortable running with a budget that doesn’t balance at a time certain?”
“We’re looking to balance it. I don’t worry about those things,” the lawmaker replied. (Begich’s office reached out to Yahoo News on Wednesday to emphasize that his point was that he wants a balanced budget regardless of the political implications—not that he was dismissing the need for one.)
The president was "very positive, very upbeat, very clear" and is "very optimistic about working with Democrats and Republicans to give the country a path forward for growth," Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana told reporters. "The Democrats and the president are completely in line."
Some liberals challenged Obama on his frequently repeated call to include entitlement savings in any grand bargain. Sen. Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, reiterated his opposition to adopting a less generous cost-of-living formula to calculate Social Security benefits.
“We were cautioning him about that: Be careful about this grand bargain,” said Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. But, he told reporters, Obama informed them “that's something that's still open for negotiation.”
Obama did not promise the caucus that he would oppose raising the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare, an issue Harkin brought up during the meeting. "He didn't make a commitment," said Harkin, "but he seemed to indicate that yes, there are other ways of solving the entitlement problem without doing things like that."
"He said he hopes that we can reach some kind of grand bargain and, of course, some of us responded by saying, 'We don't want to start whacking away at Social Security and Medicare,'" Harkin said, warning against "some kind of grand bargain that pulls the rug out from underneath the elderly or the sick or needy."
Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California called the back-and-forth "workmanlike" and characterized Obama's economic message as "jobs, jobs, jobs."
She added, "I feel like we are on the same page." Why was the meeting necessary? "The president of the United States works with the Congress," Boxer said.
Several senators said that at least one of their colleagues had questioned Obama about his targeted assassination policy, but they refused to say what the question was or who asked it.
"The president said that they're doing everything they can to comply with the law and to give information to members of the Intelligence Committee. He said they would continue on that path," said Harkin.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., joked with reporters that the best thing about a presidential visit is that "the food is always better."
He added quickly, "Just kidding. The food is the same as it always is."
"Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, it’s always great to see the president," Levin said.
White House aides say they've been encouraged by the response to Obama's outreach thus far. Some Republicans learned from the president himself that he favors some cuts to entitlement programs as part of a "grand bargain" to stem the tide of red ink, and they seem ready to give his ideas a second look. They note that meetings on neutral turf—or in Congress—can make the exchange of ideas more free-flowing than it might be in the presidential mansion, surrounded by the trappings of Obama's power.
But it wasn’t that long ago that Obama himself dismissed calls for that kind of personal outreach as a silly belief he could “Jedi mind-meld” a deal with the GOP. And that skepticism can apparently be found among White House aides as well.
Obama, who has seen his approval rating slip since winning re-election convincingly in November, has repeatedly said that Republicans simply refuse to compromise. He has touted his deficit-cutting plan, which blends new tax revenues with cuts to entitlement programs, as a road map through Washington gridlock. (Yes, Obama remains more popular nationally than Congress, and especially Republicans in Congress. But lawmakers typically care less about national polls, and the president's ambitious second-term agenda will need steadfast public support.)
But that plan has been out there since autumn 2011, and if it’s true that Republicans won’t compromise, why is Obama making an unusual series of visits to Capitol Hill?
It’s not clear that there’s any package Obama could float that would soften House Republicans’ opposition to raising tax revenue. And, as the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent reported this week, the president may find liberal Democrats sharply opposed to any plan that slices into programs like Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security.
The White House has portrayed this as a hopeful sign.
“If we take as both fact and conventional wisdom that in Washington it’s a more difficult choice for Republicans to go along with revenue, and Democrats to go along with entitlement savings, the president has put forward proposals with Democratic support that include significant entitlement savings—building on the entitlement savings he’s already signed into law,” press secretary Jay Carney said on Monday.
“Republicans, we’re hoping, will also make tough choices on their parts, and that would include allowing tax reform to produce revenue toward deficit reduction,” Carney said. “If we do that, together, we can really do something good for the economy and something good for the American middle class.”
Chris Moody and Rachel Hartman contributed to this report.