Obama reaches out to Republicans over deficit

Republican House speaker John Boehner was not at the dinner hosted by US president Barack Obama, who had instead invited rank-and-file opposition congressmen.

Republican House speaker John Boehner was not at the dinner hosted by US president Barack Obama, who had instead invited rank-and-file opposition congressmen.

Fri, Mar 8, 2013, 00:00

In a break from last week’s hostile exchanges with Republicans, US president Barack Obama has started reaching out to opposition leaders in Congress in an attempt to agree a long-term deal to reduce the federal deficit.

The president hosted 12 Republican senators at a two-hour dinner at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington DC in a change from the bitter bipartisanship over government spending cuts of $85 billion (€65 billion).

Republicans including US senator John McCain attended the dinner shortly after the House of Representatives approved a six-month spending extension to fund the government until the end of the fiscal year on September 30th, averting another fiscal crisis.

Mr McCain was photographed emerging from the dinner giving a thumbs-up sign and saying it went “just fine”.

The White House said Mr Obama paid the dinner bill personally.

Mr Obama yesterday held discussions with congressmen Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate last year, and Chris Van Hollen – the most senior Republican and Democrat respectively on the House budget committee. He will meet party members from across the aisle on Capitol Hill next week.

“I hope this is the beginning of a serious discussion of the challenges we face,” said Mr Ryan before the meeting.

Change of approach

Mr Obama is reaching out to the GOP (Grand Old Party) less than a week after the White House and Republicans blamed each other for across-the-board spending cuts known as “the sequester” that came into effect on March 1st.

Mr Obama wants specific budget cuts, as opposed to indiscriminate reductions, and increased taxes by closing loopholes for wealthy companies and individuals, a measure opposed by Republicans.

The president must win over the opposition party if he has any hope of his budget measures passing the House of Representatives, where Republicans hold a majority.

Mr Obama skipped over the most senior Republicans in Congress – the Senate’s Mitch McConnell and House speaker John Boehner, who are the most trenchant in their opposition to his proposals – by inviting rank-and-file GOP senators to what was described as a “serious” and “respectful” engagement at Wednesday’s dinner.

NBC News reported that the president had for the first time revealed to the Republicans the actual spending cuts he is seeking.

“The president greatly enjoyed the dinner and had a good exchange of ideas with the senators,” the White House said.

Republican senator Lindsey Graham was buoyed by Mr Obama’s attempts to reach out to his opponents. “This is how you solve hard problems,” he said.

Another Republican senator who attended the dinner, Pat Toomey, said he hoped it was the start of “a new approach on the part of the president”.

A deal was not going to be struck “over one dinner”, he added, “but I think it was constructive exchange”.

Measure passed

The temporary funding Bill passed on Wednesday to avoid a government shutdown was carried by 267 votes to 151 in the House. It allocates $982 billion to extend the “continuing resolution”, a short-term funding extension in place since the start of the year, beyond March 27th.

Most Republicans voted for the Bill, while most Democrats opposed it as they press for a long-term budget deal to tackle the country’s ballooning $16.4 trillion debt and $900 billion annual deficit.

Senators will vote on the measure, though Democrats may seek changes that will mitigate the effects of the recent spending cuts.