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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

Policy differences aside, there was an undercurrent of mistrust if not long-nursed grievances among Republicans, many of whom were getting their first look up-close look at the Democrat in the White House.

Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma told the president he had heard that his first call on election night last November had been to the leader of the Democrats' 2014 campaign committee, rather than to Boehner, the Republican speaker.

Not so, Obama replied, saying he had indeed called Boehner first, but he was asleep. "Yeah, it was an early night for us," called out one lawmaker, drawing laughs from a group that lost eight seats in November.

Later in the same meeting, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia referred to a lack of trust between the two sides. According to participants in the meeting, he chalked up Obama's delay in presenting a budget this spring to politics.

The president replied that if he were solely interested in politics he would be running a "Mediscare" campaign rather than holding meetings with Republicans.

Across the Capitol, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota singled out an interview in which he said the president accused Republicans of wanting to eviscerate Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

"Nobody here believes those programs ought to be gutted," Thune told Obama, the senator later recalled. Instead, he told the president that Republicans want to preserve the programs for the future.

The president stood his ground, saying the Republican plan to turn Medicaid and food stamps into all-purpose grants to the states would inevitably lead to deep cuts in services for the needy.

By all accounts, Medicare, which provides health care to millions of seniors, is the key to any deficit-reduction compromise.

In his budget a year ago, Obama proposed saving $305 billion over a decade from the program, although little of that derives from the sort of changes Republicans say are essential to slow the growth in health care costs.

Roughly half would come from drug companies that sell medicine to low-income Medicare beneficiaries. Also, $63 billion savings would come from changes in payment rules for post-hospital care facilities, and $36 billion from lowering the amount of bad debt the government would cover for providers.

An additional $28 billion would come from raising premiums for wealthier seniors beginning in 2017.

Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, noted that the president had said repeatedly last winter that Congress should pass tax items they agreed on and leave others for later.

Seeking to turn the tables, he asked Obama why the White House wouldn't now agree to pass legislation to slow the growth of cost-of-living increases in Social Security and other benefit programs and increase Medicare fees for wealthier seniors. Those are steps Obama has backed in the past.

Obama replied that Republicans would have to agree to higher taxes first, according to several lawmakers present.

Even then, it was clear when he met with Senate Democrats that Obama would face resistance from his allies in Congress.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent who sides with Democrats, said he and Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa spoke out strongly against changes in calculating cost-of-living increases.

"It would make major cuts in Social Security benefits ... and also very significant cuts for disabled veterans," Sanders said in a telephone interview.

"I do not believe that the American people want to balance the budget on the backs of disabled veterans or widows who lost their husbands in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Charles Babington contributed to this report.

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