Obama Treads Carefully on Deficit
President Aims for Light Touch as Republicans Seek to Avoid Being Seen as Compromising With Him
By PETER NICHOLAS
Wall Street Journal
March 14, 2013
President Barack Obama, working to restart talks in Congress on a broad deficit-reduction package, is wrestling with how deeply to immerse himself in negotiations out of concern that his involvement could impede a compromise.
Mr. Obama traveled to Capitol Hill to address House Republicans on Wednesday, the second in a three-day set of meetings to encourage talks on a "grand bargain," under which lawmakers could consider raising tax revenues, cutting spending and adjusting entitlement programs in an effort to trim deficits.
The president, escorted by House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving, right, arrives on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
But the president isn't certain that policy differences between the Democrats and Republicans can be bridged, or that his participation will help forge an agreement.
Indeed, he worries that Republicans might walk away from a deal simply to avoid being seen as finding common ground with a president who is unpopular in many GOP-leaning states and House districts.
Given the disconnect, the White House suggests the president may step back once he is assured a critical mass of Senate Republicans has been persuaded to engage in talks.
Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), one of the dozen Republican senators who had dinner with the president last week at a Washington hotel, said: "He travels under the assumption that getting involved in something creates a situation where it cannot be successful—that if he gets his hands on it too much, then it's not going to get done."
Mr. Obama, in an interview Tuesday with ABC News, talked about the sensitivities of congressional Republicans who want to avoid being seen as compromising with the White House. "I think whatever I'm for, it's very hard for a Republican to also be for," he said. "I think they always have to be a little bit—you know—maintain some distance."
In Wednesday's meeting with House Republicans, Mr. Obama said he was willing to make changes to entitlement programs as part of a deficit-reduction deal that included higher tax revenues. He signaled he is open to means-testing Medicare benefits and changing the way the government calculates inflation, a step that would reduce Social Security benefits. Mr. Obama had backed those steps previously as part of a grand bargain.
Rep. Pete King (R., N.Y.) said after the meeting that he felt the president had left room to negotiate on "major budgetary issues," adding, "There was some progress, but I don't want to overplay it."
Rep. Kevin Brady (R., Texas) said that Rep. Dave Camp (R., Mich.), the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, asked the president to move now on Medicare means-testing and the new inflation calculation, among other measures.
According to Mr. Brady, Mr. Camp said, "Look, if we agree on baby steps on Medicare and Social Security, why wait, let's take them now. The president gracefully declined." Mr. Camp confirmed the exchange.
The administration's goal, still a remote one, is to move a bill through the Democratic-controlled Senate in hopes of building momentum in the GOP-led House, where a deal would face tougher odds. Such a sequence of events has played out in some legislative fights recently, as in the year-end deal to avoid "fiscal cliff'' tax increases and in passing a stalled bill to fund domestic-violence programs.
Some Republicans harbor doubts about Mr. Obama's outreach. Sen. John Barrasso (R., Wyo.) noted that on Wednesday night, the day before he was set to meet with Senate Republicans, the president was to speak to the Democratic political group Organizing for Action, which aims to pressure Republicans to support the White House agenda. The group is led by former Obama campaign aides and former White House officials.
OFA's focus is "not on working with us," Mr. Barrasso said.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) who had lunch with the president last week, questioned Mr. Obama's motives in his recent flurry of overtures to GOP lawmakers. "Was the so-called charm offensive a temporary, poll-driven political calculation, or was it a sincere conversion to try and bring people together and start communicating?" he asked on MSNBC's "Morning Joe.''
Mr. Obama has been selective about how to engage Congress, trying different approaches over the past four years. He actively worked with lawmakers on his health-care law and with GOP leaders in 2011 on a deal to raise the debt ceiling, but the horse-trading hurt his image among some voters. Mr. Obama later sought to separate himself from Congress, which polls show is a deeply unpopular institution.
Mr. Obama took a more hands-off approach with the 2011 "supercommittee" of lawmakers that sought a grand-bargain deficit deal but failed to reach agreement.
Mr. Obama has largely stayed out of Senate negotiations aimed at overhauling immigration laws, satisfied that a bipartisan group of eight senators is making sufficient progress on its own.
"It's very clear that the president is giving the eight of us space to see if we can come up with an agreement," said Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who is working on the immigration overhaul.
The grand bargain is a different matter. Neither side is close to a compromise. Democrats want to use tax revenue increases to help trim deficits. Those Republicans willing to raise new tax revenues generally want to devote the money to cutting tax rates.
White House officials say that few Republicans have been open to raising revenue. They acknowledge that Mr. Obama's outreach could prove futile.
"It may be that, ideologically, if their position is, 'We can't do any revenue,' or, 'We can only do revenue if we gut Medicare or gut Social Security or gut Medicaid'—if that's the position, then we're probably not going to be able to get a deal," Mr. Obama told ABC News.