Why is Obama really meeting with Republicans?

Despite his sudden outreach across the aisle, a "grand bargain" remains a long shot. There may be other motives

By Alex Seitz-Wald

Published March 7, 2013 8:55PM (EST)

  (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Does President Obama's newly packed social calendar mean the fever of partisan bickering in Washington is breaking? That’s the question today after President Obama sat down for dinner with a dozen Republican senators last night and even picked up the tab himself. But don't hold your breath.

Yes, Obama is engaging in a charm offensive, lunching with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. Next Thursday, he'll join the entire GOP Senate caucus at their weekly luncheon.

But will this gastronomical diplomacy actually lead to a deal to turn off sequestration, or maybe even the elusive “grand bargain” that Obama has been lusting after for almost two years?

Sen. Lindsey Graham, who attended last night’s dinner and chose the other 11 senators on the guest list, thinks it's possible. “What I see from the president is probably the most encouraging engagement on a big issue since the early days of his presidency," Graham told reporters. "He wants to do the big deal.”

“The big deal” that Obama wants would be some version of the “grand bargain” that Obama and House Speaker John Boehner almost struck in the summer of 2011: some tax increases, some closing of tax loopholes and lowering of tax rates, along with huge cuts to spending, especially on social safety net programs.

The current White House plan, which includes switching the way inflation is calculated in Social Security to shave costs and reduce benefits (they euphemistically call it the “superlative CPI”) is very similar to the one Boehner proposed last autumn. It certainly entails surrendering on something many Democrats (and Americans) vehemently oppose. So, theoretically, Republicans might be interested, right?

Well, it turns out Graham may be in the minority, in thinking some wining and dining from the White House will actually accomplish much. Others suggest Obama's outreach is essentially for show, to quiet the criticism of Washington insiders that the president is aloof and not sufficiently bipartisan.

“Smells to me like he is just trying to 'check the box' of a personal presidential push after the whole Jedi-mind-meld thing at the presser," one Senate Democratic aide remarked, noting that there is a growing caucus of scribes and pundits, like National Journal editor Ron Fournier, preoccupied with questioning Obama's commitment to the gauzy ideal of bipartisan leadership. "He’s not gonna [make a deal] without revenues and the GOP isn’t going to do it with them, so no matter how many times they hit Plume for the tasting menu, I don’t really see it happening, at least in the short term."

Another agreed with TPM’s Brian Beutler’s hunch that the charm offensive may be about placating Beltway opinion makers. “Seems more like kabuki theater aimed to appease DC elites. Do you really think folks like Ron Johnson are going to go for $600 billion in new revenue? I don’t think so,” the aide said.

“We don’t think that there is a significant deal worth doing -- one that creates jobs and protects Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- that today's Republican Party would agree to,” said Jeff Hauser of the AFL-CIO, a key ally of the White House.

But could this time be different? The New Republic’s Noam Scheiber laid out the best case for that alternative scenario this morning:

By reaching out to Republican senators who are sympathetic to the deal, Obama just may succeed at splitting some of them off from their leadership, giving him the 60 votes he needs to pass it in the Senate. [Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell can then curse his colleagues’ treachery in public while privately cheering the outcome. In fact, my guess is that once Obama has the magic 60 votes, he will get several more, since many senators will want to claim a share of the credit.

Even if that does work, Scheiber assumes Obama will needs only a few Senate Republicans on top of most of all of the chamber’s 53 Democrats. But that may be a tall order, considering how hostile liberal Democrats are to entitlement cuts.

"'Chained CPI' is just a fancy way to say 'cut benefits for seniors, the permanently disabled, and orphans,'" Sen. Elizabeth Warren told Salon. "Our Social Security system is critical to protecting middle-class families, and we cannot allow it to be dismantled inch by inch."

And even if the president could get liberal Democrats on board, he'd also have to worry about congressional Republicans. “Even if you believe dinner can change these politicians' stated policy goals and pick up a couple Republican Senate votes for a grand bargain, you still have the problem in the House,” a House Democratic aide noted. “The majority of their caucus is ready to throw Boehner out if he brings up anything else that includes any revenue, plus you’re going to lose some Senate Democrats and most House Democrats if you bring something up that cuts Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits."

The crux, at least when it comes to the Democratic side, will be a White House-endorsed plan to implement the so-called chained CPI, which changes the way inflation is calculated for Social Security Cost of Living Adjustments. While chained CPI has been called by some the least bad way to cut entitlements, most liberals absolutely hate it (although some groups, like the Center for American Progress, have endorsed it). Liberal critics point out there are plenty of other ways to strengthen the retirement program without cutting benefits, and over 100 House Democrats -- the majority of the caucus -- have already signed onto a letter saying they won’t support the CPI change.

“Strengthening Social Security should be handled as a stand-alone question. Making it part of a deficit reduction deal would not be a ‘grand bargain,’ it would be a bad bargain,” Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown told Salon. He remains “strongly opposed” to chained-CPI, a spokesperson confirmed.

Scheiber only gives this a passing mention in a footnote, saying, "I suspect the reaction on the left and from the public will be muted given the support of Obama and Senate Democrats." That's certainly possible, and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has said she could get chained CPI through her caucus, but Democrats have not shown any signs of backing down yet. If anything, they've ratcheted up the pressure, and Pelosi even recanted a bit on her support for the plan.

And chained CPI, despite Democrats' opposition, is the most likely avenue for entitlement reform, as the White House has already taken raising the Medicare retirement age off the table.

Meanwhile, across the aisle, Republicans are still bitter after the fiscal cliff deal raised billions in new revenue and seem completely closed to even discussing the possibility of raising more. "This discussion about revenue, in my view, is over,” Boehner said last Friday after a meeting at the White House.

“It’s just for public relations," another Democratic Hill aide said of the dinner. "The junior Republican senators get to have their faces splashed on TV, Obama gets to look like he's being bipartisan and trying and reaching out to Congress, but when in the history of everdom have these breakout groups ever actually produced real legislation that's become public law?”

Alex Seitz-Wald

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Bipartisanship Chained Cpi "grand Bargain" Paul Ryan Social Security