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.
Lawmakers and the White House are now looking for ways to ease the impact of the "sequester," as the automatic cuts are called, at the same time they seek to prevent a shutdown of federal agencies on March 27.
The legislation that cleared the House on Wednesday on a bipartisan vote would do both, ensuring funding through the Sept. 30 end of the budget year while granting the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department greater flexibility in implementing their share of short-term spending cuts.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where Democrats and the White House are deep in negotiations with Republicans on changes that would give the Homeland Security Department and other domestic agencies the same type of flexibility that the Pentagon would receive in administering the spending cuts.
As the president looks toward longer-term talks on deficit reduction, he is pointedly skipping over the Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, both of whom insist Obama will get no further tax hikes from Capitol Hill. Instead, aides say, Obama is focusing his outreach on lawmakers with a history of bipartisan deal-making and those who have indicated some willingness to support increased tax revenue as part of a big deficit-cutting package.
Along with Corker, the lawmakers in attendance at Wednesday's dinner were Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Dan Coats of Indiana, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Mike Johanns of Nebraska.
Obama advisers say they're hopeful that without the heightened pressure of an imminent fiscal deadline, the president and Republicans can have constructive conversations on a broad deficit-reduction bill that would include concessions from the GOP on tax increases and from Democrats on entitlement programs.
But unless Boehner and McConnell bend on taxes, prospects for a sweeping deficit deal remain dim.
The president will have an opportunity to make his case to GOP leaders next week when he heads to Capitol Hill for separate meetings with the House and Senate Republican conferences. McConnell announced that Obama would attend the GOP Senate policy lunch and Boehner's office said the president would meet with House Republicans Wednesday.
Obama will also meet on Capitol Hill next week with House and Senate Democrats.
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn and Jim Abrams contributed to this report.