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President Obama's charm campaign: High marks, no concessions

By David Espo

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 16 2013 9:10 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama, escorted by Senate Sergeant at Arms Terry Gainer, waves as he arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 12, 2013, to visit with Senate Democrats in the first of four meetings with lawmakers this week to discuss the budget.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Over dinner at a fancy hotel a few blocks from the White House, Republican senators wanted to know if President Barack Obama would support a gradual increase in the age of eligibility for Medicare, set at 65 since the program's inception more than four decades ago.

The president hedged, according to several people at the event, recalling the discussion on a cost-saving change to Medicare that most if not all leading Democrats in Congress adamantly oppose.

One later recalled that Obama "drew no bright line" in opposition, but the lawmaker came away believing that the president "would be very resistant" even if it might unlock a long-sought deal to reduce deficits and an ever-growing federal debt.

That lawmaker and some of the others describing what occurred in the meetings spoke on condition of anonymity, noting that the sessions were supposed to be private discussions.

The politically fraught moment came at the outset of Obama's widely publicized recent string of meetings with rank-and-file lawmakers. The unusual commitment of presidential time netted public praise from his most implacable critics and was supplemented by numerous conversations among lawmakers and senior White House aides.

No breakthroughs were anticipated and none emerged, and for all the warm talk, House Speaker John Boehner delivered a tart summation.

"Republicans want to balance the budget. The president doesn't. Republicans want to solve our long-term debt problem. The president doesn't," he said, while adding it was incumbent on all sides to seek common ground.

Across the hours, there were moments of levity, and an expression of gratitude to Arizona Sen. John McCain for his service to the nation on the 40th anniversary of his release from a prisoner of war camp in Vietnam.

Evidently the food was pretty good, too.

One presidential aide left a meeting with the Senate Republican rank and file toting a carry-out bag from lunch that featured lobster salad and blueberry pie with ice cream.

"Ultimately it's a matter of the House and the Senate ... getting together and being willing to compromise," the president said as he departed the Capitol on Thursday.

Even on that point, Republicans disagree.

Over and over, they told Obama, he must lead, tone down the attacks on them and lean on Democrats to accept concessions in benefit programs.

Over and over, he told Republicans that if he is to make concessions on Medicare and elsewhere, they would have to agree to higher taxes.

On that, there was little if any give, particularly with Republicans noting that Obama's approval ratings have recently begun receding for the first time since his re-election.

At the dinner at the Jefferson Hotel more than 10 days ago, Republican senators noted that some of the changes under discussion for Medicare would raise costs for wealthier seniors and also that higher revenues might result from what one called "pro-growth tax reform."

But there was no support for raising taxes, recalled one participant at the dinner. Several said the resolve stemmed from last winter's agreement to raise tax rates in legislation that contained only skimpy spending cuts.

By the time of his final meeting Thursday, Obama told House Democrats that, for now at least, they needn't worry about having to make concessions like slowing the growth of cost-of-living benefits under Social Security and other programs. Republicans, he said, weren't willing to contemplate enough additional tax revenue to warrant the trade-off.

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