Talk about white smoke: I am told, by Republican sources, that President Obama got standing ovations at the beginning and end of his meeting today with House Republicans on Capitol Hill - his first such meeting in four years.
There were tough questions and no breakthroughs, but a source inside the closed-door meeting called it "very cordial" and told me that virtually every House Republican who stood up to ask a question began by saying, "Thank you for coming" and "You are welcome here anytime." Some added, "We need to work together."
The biggest laugh line: The president informed the group that there was white smoke at the Vatican, and Rep. Billy Long of Missouri yelled out, "Does that mean the White House is open for tours?" Obama responded: "No, but the Vatican is."
This was Obama's first visit to Capitol Hill to meet with House Republicans in four years. He has met with them a total of four times, the most recent being at the White House 2011.
The president's message was straightforward and unsurprising. He began the meeting by saying he wanted to get things done on the budget and taxes, immigration and guns. On entitlement reform, he made it clear he was willing to push Democrats to make tough cuts but only if Republicans agreed to higher tax revenues. He also mentioned the strong bi-partisan commitment to Israel, which he will visit next week.
He was asked about eight questions, including these:
Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma accused Obama of being too focused on defeating Republicans and asked, "Can we agree that we need to get to a balanced budget in 10 years?" The president responded by saying that domestic spending had already been cut deeply, and that balancing the budget too quickly would hurt the economy.
Rep. Candace Miller of Michigan asked about the cancellation of White House tours. The president said it was a Secret Service decision.
Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana asked about offshore oil drilling and the Keystone pipeline. The president said there were broad areas of agreement on energy, but that it was important to have a broader energy policy beyond fossil fuels. He said a decision on the Keystone pipeline would be coming "soon."
Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, the chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, asked if Obama and Republicans agreed on some entitlement reforms (specifically, means-testing for Medicare and reducing annual cost-of-living increases for Social Security), why couldn't those things be done now? The president said he would agree to those reforms only if Republicans agreed to raise tax revenues by closing loopholes, because we have to ask "everybody to sacrifice."
Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois, who served with Obama in the Illinois state legislature, brought up the fiscal mess in Illinois and said Republicans were worried that Obama's policies would cause the same thing to happen here. Obama said the budget mess in Illinois was a bipartisan mess.
Rep. Tom Price of Georgia brought up the lack of trust between Republicans and the White House, and said the delay on the White House budget seemed politically motivated. Obama insisted the delay was not political: "I am done with campaigns," he said. "I am not running for re-election." The president hit that theme several times during the meeting.
Several of the questioners brought up the lack of trust and pointed to the fact that the president would be meeting tonight on behalf of his grassroots group Organizing for Action, raising money, as Roskam put it, "to thin our herd."
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