Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said he had "a great conversation" with Senate Republicans on Thursday, the third stop in his ice-breaking tour of the Capitol this week on the budget and other contentious topics.
"He was very candid. He certainly understands that you can't fix the country without adjusting entitlements to fit the demographics of our country," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., referring to benefit programs like Social Security and Medicare. "We'll see where we go from here, but it was a great meeting."
Obama then walked across the Capitol to meet with his House Democratic allies, capping visits this week to the Democratic and GOP conferences of both House and Senate.
Thursday's meetings came as a key Senate panel moved toward party-line approval of a fiscal blueprint that would only modestly trim the budget deficit while protecting safety net programs from slashing cuts proposed by Republicans.
The Senate budget plan, drafted by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., blends about $1 trillion in modest cuts to health care providers, the Pentagon, domestic agencies and interest payments on the debt with an equal amount in new revenue claimed by ending some tax breaks.
But because Democrats want to restore $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over the same period — cuts imposed by Washington's failure to strike a broader budget pact — Murray's blueprint increases spending slightly when compared with current policies. And after realistic assumptions about war spending are factored in, Murray's proposal would curb the deficit by only a few hundred billion dollars over 10 years. Murray's plan allocates just $50 billion for overseas military operations next year and assumes no war spending whatsoever starting in 2016.
In the House, Budget Committee Republicans approved a 2014 budget plan late Wednesday with an entirely opposite approach. It whacks spending by $4.6 trillion over the coming decade and promises sweeping cuts to Medicaid and domestic agencies while setting a path to balancing the government's books within 10 years. The party-line vote sent the measure to the full House for a vote next week.
The partisan activity in the rival Budget panels contrasts with Obama's charm offensive, which is aimed at exploring the possibility of bipartisan agreement over politically challenging budget issues that have long gridlocked Washington.
Obama is signaling a willingness to adopt some modest steps on Medicare and Social Security, even as many of his Democratic allies wince at the idea. He told House Democrats that he could support a less generous inflation adjustment for Social Security but only as part of a larger budget bargain that includes new taxes.
He told senators to expect a decision on the keystone pipeline sometime this year though he didn't signal whether to expect his administration to approve it, said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.
"This will be hard, and it will have to go against his own party to some extent as will some of us on the other side, but that we need to fix the debt for the country," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. "He was candid and open and direct and he didn't sugar coat it. He recognizes that we have some pretty big differences and we ought to keep expectations under control, but he said he believes — and I think all of us believe — this is the way we should be doing business together."
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