After years of pining for more face time with the president, House Republicans found out Wednesday that Barack Obama looks and sounds the same behind closed doors as he does on TV.
That's not to say they didn't appreciate the personal touches -- gentle banter, praise for some of their ideas and handshakes all around afterward -- but the president's rare meeting with House Republicans in the basement of the Capitol yielded little in the way of movement on either side of the partisan divide. It's the first time the president has met with the House GOP since 2011.
Obama still won't take any big risks on entitlement reform unless Republicans agree to raise taxes again, he declined to say whether he would approve the Keystone XL pipeline, and he still won't slash discretionary spending. Within a couple of hours of leaving the Capitol, Obama issued a threat to veto a job-training bill championed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
So much for the bipartisan note Obama struck in his closing remarks. Or, as some House Republicans concluded as they shuffled out of the meeting room: Meet the new president, same as the old president.
"I heard what the president had to say. I've heard it before," said Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has had his share of failed negotiations with the White House. "I thought it was good for all of our members to hear it, so they have an understanding of where he's coming from. We've got big problems in our country -- they need to be addressed, we're willing to get them addressed. I hope the president continues his outreach."
Of course, the same could also be said of Republicans. At the moment, they are refusing to raise additional revenue as part of a grand deficit bargain. They think they have given enough by agreeing to raise $600 billion in new taxes when Washington solved the fiscal cliff deal Jan. 1.
Obama's overture to the GOP is part of an unusual series of meetings this week with lawmakers: He started Tuesday with Senate Democrats and will continue Thursday with sessions with Senate Republicans and House Democrats. But it's unclear whether the meetings will move the mark.
A White House official called the meeting a "good, substantive exchange" and said Obama "enjoyed the conversation." The aide said that the two parties didn't need to agree on everything to compromise on some things.
"The president handled a variety of questions on a range of topics from the members and reinforced his strong desire, especially now that the election is over, to find bipartisan common ground on a range of legislative priorities," the aide said.
Behind the scenes, Republican leaders made sure that the rank and file were on their best behavior Wednesday. They orchestrated the meeting by handpicking lawmakers to ask questions, vetting their scripts and allowing only a few aides from the White House and the GOP ranks in the room.
The questioners were hardly rabble-rousers. Two committee chairs -- Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp and Administration Chair Candice Miller -- both of Michigan. Two were members of leadership: Oklahoma Rep. James Lankford and Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam. Rep. Jackie Walorski, a freshman from Indiana, is a favorite of leadership. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who chairs the Republican Study Committee, was a conservative representative. The malcontents were relegated to talking to reporters after the meeting or taking to Twitter -- Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California tweeted that Obama was "blowing smoke" in Republicans' faces.
The meeting's structure facilitated a friendly dialogue. While Republicans touched on political hot buttons -- including whether Obama will use his new nonprofit organization to campaign against them and the status of White House tours -- most of the queries dealt with Obama's policy stances on issues ranging from entitlement and tax reform to rewriting the nation's immigration laws.
Of late, the two sides have locked horns on the budget, with Republicans clamoring for a balanced budget within 10 years and Obama maintaining that he wants to take a "balanced approach" to deficit reduction. Evening out the ledger in the next decade "isn't necessary," Obama told the GOP.
"We can't afford huge cuts in discretionary spending," Obama said, according to sources in the room. He added that he wants to tackle long-term debt, but "some additional revenue is needed" to do entitlement reform. Tax hikes have been the key sticking point between the White House and Republicans over reaching a deficit deal.
"He said the short-term debt's not that bad, and we think it is that bad," said Rep. Billy Long of Missouri.
Likewise, Obama said he would not tweak entitlements without more taxes. Camp praised Obama for supporting "Medicare capping for high net-worth people" and "chained CPI on Social Security."
He then asked Obama why Congress doesn't move forward on those proposals since the two sides agree on them. Obama answered, the sources said, by talking about tax reform and raising more revenue. "Politically, it's hard for me to justify" entitlement reform without more tax revenue, Obama said, according to the sources.
Walorski asked why Obama doesn't balance the budget, just like families do. Obama said the federal government's balance sheet is a different beast.
But the president used the analogy of a family budget in a weekly radio address to the nation on Jan. 30, 2010.
"There are certain core principles our families and businesses follow when they sit down to do their own budgets," he said then, when Democrats controlled the House. "They accept that they can't get everything they want, and they focus on what they really need. They make tough decisions and sacrifice for their kids. They don't spend what they don't have, and they make do with what they've got. It's time their government did the same."
Despite their differences, Long and Obama shared a chuckle when the president announced to the room that white smoke had been spotted at the Vatican as a sign a new pope had been chosen.
"Does that mean White House tours are opened?" Long asked. Everyone laughed. Obama then noted it probably meant that the Vatican probably was open for tours. In fact, Obama said it was not his decision to cancel White House tours -- it was the Secret Service's decision.
The president told Republicans that he didn't have a political agenda, noting he was simply seeking a chat about guns, immigration reform, budgetary issues and international policy.
He insisted that his new nonprofit arm, Organizing for Action, which grew out of his campaign operation, is not designed to beat Republicans in the 2014 midterm election. He also said immigration reform would benefit Republicans, not his own party.
Lankford told the president that he should be focused on "saving the next generation" from mounting debt, rather than building a nonprofit that can engage in the national political debate.
"OFA is organized around issues rather than 2014," Obama said in a lengthy, 10-minute answer to Lankford, according to a source inside the meeting.
Obama said Democrats aren't so savvy as to always be thinking about the next election.
"We are not that smart," Obama told the Republican. "We're not thinking in those ways."
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