Obama Looks For A Spring Thaw With Congress To Start Melting Deficit

President Obama is hoping for a spring thaw in White House-congressional relations.

The president had dinner Wednesday night with a small group of Republican lawmakers. He’s also planning rare visits to Capitol Hill next week to discuss his agenda with both Democrats and Republicans.

Aides say Obama is trying to locate what he calls a “caucus of common sense” in Congress to tackle the country’s long-term budget challenges.

With across-the-board spending cuts now on autopilot, there’s a momentary lull in Washington’s budget brinksmanship. Obama is using this window to try to craft a more lasting approach to the federal debt.

Republican leaders in Congress have ruled out any additional tax increases, but some GOP lawmakers seem more open to the idea.

“This is the chance to do the big deal,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said last week in an interview with CNN. “I’m willing to raise revenue. I’m willing to raise $600 billion in new revenue, if my Democratic friends would be willing to reform entitlements.”

Touching entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security is as challenging for some Democrats as raising taxes is for Republicans. But the president has said he’s willing to do it.

“What I’ve said very specifically, very detailed, is that I’m prepared to take on the problem where it exists — on entitlements — and do some things that my own party really doesn’t like, if it’s part of a broader package of sensible deficit reduction,” he said.

In fact, Obama has repeatedly offered to make changes to programs like Social Security and especially Medicare, which is one of the major drivers of the government’s long-term deficits. He raised the idea most recently during his unsuccessful negotiations in December with Republican House Speaker John Boehner.

White House spokesman Jay Carney says that offer is still on the table.

“Occasionally, you see some Republican leaders insist the president doesn’t have a plan,” Carney says. “Perhaps they don’t have the Internet in those offices. But the plan is available to all of you.”

The plan, on the White House website, includes $400 billion in health care savings over the next decade, with a little over half of that coming from Medicare. Some of the savings would come from using more efficient care after hospital stays, or requiring the wealthy to pay higher Medicare premiums. The biggest chunk would come from allowing the government to use its bargaining power to negotiate lower prices on prescription drugs.

“That’s an example of reducing costs to the federal government, but actually reducing total costs,” says emeritus professor Ted Marmor of Yale University.

He says that’s not true of all health care proposals. Marmor, who wrote the book The Politics of Medicare, says some ideas to save the government money end up costing somebody else.

“If you try to control the cost to the government and you shift those costs to other actors, that’s called cost-shifting, rather than cost-controlling,” he says.

That’s one criticism of the House Republican plan, for example. It would replace traditional Medicare for future retirees with a voucher that seniors could use to buy private insurance. The government could then limit how quickly its own costs rise. But if insurance costs go up faster, seniors would have to make up the difference.

Health care savings are just part of the president’s overall plan for deficit reduction. He’s also agreed to accept more modest cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security, which White House spokesman Carney says is not easy.

“He has made some tough choices in his proposals that he understands are difficult for some Democrats, often many Democrats, to go along with,” Carney says.

That may be why the president has been less outspoken in trumpeting these proposals than he has, for example, about closing tax loopholes, another big part of his plan. Democrats may wonder: Why go after their sacred cows when Republican leaders are unwilling to target their own?

Ultimately, the president needs to find lawmakers he can share more than just a meal with.

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