Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Efforts to stave off a late March government shutdown shifted to the Senate after House Republicans swiftly passed legislation to keep federal agencies running, while also easing some effects of $85 billion in budget cuts.
The House legislation, approved Wednesday on a bipartisan vote, is the first step toward averting a possible fiscal showdown this month. If another budget crisis can be avoided, it could clear the way for lawmakers and President Barack Obama to restart talks on a longer-term deficit reduction plan.
That was Obama's focus during a rare dinner with a dozen Republican senators Wednesday night at a hotel near the White House and seemed certain to be Topic A Thursday when Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee and last year's GOP vice presidential nominee, joined the president for lunch Thursday at the White House.
House Speaker John Boehner — who has not been among the Republicans the president has reached out to in recent days — said Obama's recent overtures were a "hopeful sign" that progress could be made in breaking the impasse over how to reduce the federal deficit. Still, he said those efforts wouldn't get very far if Obama continues to insist on tax increases.
While no real breakthroughs appeared to emerge from Wednesday's two-hour meal, the mere fact that it happened was significant given the lack of direct engagement between Obama and rank-and-file Republicans over the past two years.
White House and congressional aides said the president and lawmakers had a good exchange of ideas centered on how they could work together to tackle the nation's fiscal problems.
"It was, I thought, a very sincere discussion," Sen. Bob Corker, one the dinner attendees, said in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press. "Everybody laid their cards on the table. I thought it was constructive."
"I do think it helped a lay a foundation that maybe sometime between now and when the debt ceiling hits, which is really around the first of August or that time frame, maybe we'll get to a much broader and deeper deal as it relates to solving our fiscal problems, " Corker, R-Tenn., said.
He said that while both sides emphasize different components of a long-term deficit reduction deal, "there is more commonality than people think."
It would take months for compromise talks on a broad deficit reduction deal to bear fruit, and there is little sign of shifts on the key difference that separates the parties. Obama is seeking higher taxes as part of his deficit-cutting approach, while Ryan, author of the House GOP budget, previewed a longer-term plan Wednesday to erase federal deficits without raising taxes.
"I think this whole thing will come to a crescendo this summer, and we're going to have to talk to each other to get an agreement about how to delay a debt crisis, how to save this country from a fiscal train wreck that's coming," Ryan said. He added that he had spoken with Obama in recent days but declined to provide details.
Obama's phone call with Ryan and other congressional Republicans, along with Wednesday's dinner, mark a shift in tactics for a president who has been reluctant to reach out personally to lawmakers. But White House efforts to compel Republicans to negotiate by mounting public pressure campaigns proved futile in the efforts to avert the automatic spending cuts that started taking effect Friday.
Corker said the group had a "frank discussion" about the confrontational tone and public rhetoric that has marked the debate.
"On the one hand, to sit down in a room and be sincere and talk about a problem in a real way, and then to go out the microphones and the cameras and put on the gloves, there was a strong acknowledgment last night that that's not a way of dealing with our nation's biggest issues," Corker said.
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