After talks with Obama, House Republicans want to see action

Chris Moody

(Updated at 3:15 p.m.)

House Republicans emerged from a rare conferencewide meeting with President Barack Obama on Wednesday. The lengthy discussion on the future of the country focused on taxes, entitlements, immigration, gun control, the nation's relationship with Israel, energy and, yes, the announcement of a new pope.

During Obama's talk, an aide handed the president a note that informed him there was white smoke billowing from the chimney at the Vatican, and he shared the news with the House lawmakers.

The news from Rome, however, may have been the only major surprise for the lawmakers. Many said after the meeting that while they appreciated the gesture from the president, they still needed more proof that he was willing to negotiate and act in good faith. He told them that he was willing to work with them on tax and entitlement reform, but he also made clear that he wouldn't budge on his demand that higher tax revenue be part of a "grand bargain."

All in all, it was a good first step, lawmakers who attended the meeting said afterward, but now they want to see him act.

"The best way he can tell us what he wants to do is in a budget, " said North Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem on her way out of the meeting. "And until he puts the action into place, what he says doesn't really matter. We're going to get a lot of lip service out of this guy. I'm just really hoping we can finally get some action out of him."

The president is expected to release his own budget in April, and several Republicans said they will look to that document to gauge the president's willingness to work with them.

"We'll see what comes of it. That's what matters," said Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon.

Walden also noted he was dismayed that Obama was planning to speak to Organizing for Action later that day, his former campaign organization that became a liberal advocacy group after the election.

"The question is, 'Is this just another chapter in the never-ending campaign?' ... especially after we know the president is going to speak to Organizing for Action tonight," said Walden. "We know he's made it clear that taking out the House is his big priority. And we know he's been on the never-ending campaign tour up to this point, so there's a trust factor."

Obama, who served as an Illinois senator before rising to the presidency, was not in familiar territory like he was on Tuesday when he met with Senate Democrats. Over lunch on Wednesday afternoon, Obama shared a basement room of the Capitol with more than 200 Republicans, many of whom actively campaigned against his re-election and others who have publicly accused him of being a "socialist" and an "imperial" leader. The direct talks were the first time he has addressed the entire group for three years, when Republicans invited the president to a conferencewide retreat in Baltimore. For many lawmakers, Wednesday's meeting was the first time they got to meet Obama face to face.

The decision to hold an open discussion with House Republicans is part of a new, so-called "charm offensive" by the White House meant to ease tensions with Capitol Hill. In the aftermath of the failed negotiations to avoid $85 billion in automatic, across-the-board spending cuts last month and the terse conversations involved in finding an alternative to the "fiscal cliff" in January, the relationship between lawmakers and the president could use a bit of thawing.

At a press conference after the meeting, House Speaker John Boehner described the tone as the "most encouraging" part of the discussion. "I thought the tone of the meeting both from the president and from our members was very respectful. There was a candid, frank conversation," he said. When asked to explain exactly how the meeting was "productive," a word used by both parties when describing this week's meetings with the president, Boehner said it was useful to allow members to "understand where he's coming from."

While all the lawmakers described the meeting as "polite," the sharpest difference between the House vision and the president's appeared to deal with whether the federal government should strive to balance the budget. The House Republican budget, unveiled Tuesday, seeks to balance the budget within a decade. The Democratic budget, released by the Senate on Wednesday, does not.

"He does not want to balance the budget in 10 years, and he wants tax increases. And he wants new spending," a dour California Rep. Darrell Issa said as he exited the meeting. "But other than that, we're close."

Rachel Rose Hartman contributed to this report.