US Senate Republicans politely but firmly told US President Barack Obama to tone down his political attacks and prod Democratic allies to support controversial changes to a popular government healthcare program if he wants a compromise on reducing the gaping US deficit.
Both sides described the 90-minute meeting on Thursday as helpful, though nothing concrete emerged to narrow the partisan divide has hurt efforts to address a series of fiscal crises.
“We’re making progress,” Obama told reporters before returning to the White House after his third straight day of rare outreach to thaw the frosty relationship.
Ideological differences on how to slash the deficit have left the country wrestling with a blunt US$85 billion in budget cuts. Both parties admit the cuts threaten the US economic recovery, but they automatically took effect March 1 because the two sides could not reach a compromise on an alternative.
Democrats have demanded higher taxes, while Republicans want a plan that solely includes spending cutbacks.
Obama met with Senate Republicans and House Democrats as the US Congress made plodding progress on legislation to both cope with the spending cuts and address the next looming crisis — a possible government shutdown over funding at the end of this month.
Both parties have also offered budget proposals in an annual ritual that is mostly political posturing meant to lay out each side’s stance on spending.
In the Senate, several Republicans told the president his rhetoric was not conducive to compromise.
“It’s better if the president is here fully engaged with us than traveling around the country saying Congress isn’t doing its job,” Senator John Barrasso told reporters, summarizing comments he and others had made.
Participants at the closed-door meeting said Obama acknowledged the point without yielding ground — and noted that Republicans criticize him freely.
Obama has shown a willingness to reduce spending on big entitlement programs such as the Medicare healthcare program for the elderly, the Social Security pension program and the Medicaid healthcare program for the poor — traditionally a taboo among Democrats — in exchange for raising revenue by closing loopholes in the tax code.
The president has not insisted on higher tax rates.
Senators said the meeting also featured exchanges on the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, tax reform and the regulatory burden on businesses.
In the House late on Wednesday, Budget Committee Republicans approved a budget plan for next year that cuts spending by US$4.6 trillion over the coming decade with cuts to Medicaid and domestic agencies while balancing the government’s books within 10 years. The vote sent the measure to the full House for a vote next week.
The House budget plan tries to protect the US Department of Defense from the deep spending cuts by cutting more deeply into the day-to-day operating budgets of domestic agencies next year.
On Thursday, the Senate Budget Committee approved a Democratic Party-line fiscal blueprint that would trim the budget deficit while protecting safety-net programs from Republican-proposed cuts.