WASHINGTON -- After a rough-and-tumble meeting with House Republicans earlier in the week, President Obama wrapped up his Capitol Hill tour Thursday with friendlier crowds in the House and Senate, even as lawmakers signaled opposition to his budget proposals and revealed the deep divide that could prevent a deficit-reduction deal.
Obama lunched on Maine lobster salad with Senate Republicans, who have increasingly shown interest in working with the administration on a budget agreement. Then he crossed the Capitol to engage in a freewheeling Q&A with House Democrats.
Lawmakers on both sides found a more optimistic, upbeat president who urged them to consider the narrow time frame they have until summer to find a budget compromise.
“All of us get the sense that he realizes that he’s got to reach out,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). “He mentioned at the beginning he’s got no more elections. He’s done running. And so his concern is governing. And growing the economy. And in order to do those things, let’s face it, he’s going to need our help and we’re going to need his.”
Differences remain wide and deep. Democrats in the House burst into applause when the co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, questioned the president’s proposal to reduce the cost of living adjustment for seniors and veterans as a way to save money on Social Security and other federal benefits.
“He got the message,” said Rep. Jackie Speier of California.
The conversations roamed past the budget to immigration, energy policy and other topics.
Thursday’s visits ended, for now, the president’s weeklong charm offensive on the east side of Pennsylvania Avenue as he tries to build goodwill -- and a voting bloc -- that could help him accomplish his second-term agenda.
Wednesday's meeting with House Republicans had a more combative tone, and GOP lawmakers left unconvinced that the president was willing to move toward their positions, particularly on the budget.
“I don’t think we found new ground,” said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas). “The president said: If you raise taxes, anything is possible. He wants tax increases. He’ll do anything if you raise taxes.”
Republican senators, though, have been more willing to consider new revenues as part of a broader package that would reduce deficits, particularly by trimming Medicare and Medicaid -- healthcare programs that are driving deficits.
Particular interest seems to be forming on both sides of the aisle around Obama’s proposal for tying the cost of living adjustment to higher income levels, so only wealthier recipients would see their Social Security or veterans’ benefits reduced.
Some Democrats seemed amenable to that approach, while others said it remained a non-starter.
At the Senate luncheon, the lobster salad was courtesy of Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), whose turn it was to host the weekly GOP gathering. Obama stayed more than an hour.
By afternoon, he had moved to the House, where he took his time, answering about a dozen questions and peppering his responses with personal jokes to the lawmakers, even as aides tried to wrap up and pull him away.
"He was the most relaxed I've ever seen him,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, an Obama ally and past chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“It almost appears like he’s enjoying the schmoozing, I think that’s good for all of us,” Speier said. “He’s setting the table right now. We haven’t put the entree on the table yet.”